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Guinea Pigs Inherit Climate Change Defense From Fathers

Jan 04, 2016 02:00 PM EST
Guinea Pigs
Male wild guinea pigs inherit their response to environmental change from their father.
(Photo : Flickr: Toshihiro Gamo)

Wild guinea pigs inherit more than eye color from their parents. A recent study also revealed guinea pig fathers are able to pass down their ability to adjust to increasing temperatures.

Male wild guinea pigs respond to climate change with biochemical modifications attached to their genome and pass this "epigenetic" information on to the next generation, a team of researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), the Berlin Center for Genomics in Biodiversity Research (BeGenDiv) and the Californian company Zymo Research report in a new study.

"We believe that the transfer of epigenetic information from father to sons prepares the latter for changes in environmental conditions such as a rise in temperature. This is particularly important with regards to a possible adaptive response to climate change. Epigenetic mechanisms could therefore be crucial for the fitness and survival of the offspring," Alexandra Weyrich, study researcher from the IZW, said in a news release.

For the study, male wild guinea pigs were subjected to increasing temperatures at ten degree increments for a period of two months. This allowed researchers to monitor the animals' response to changing environmental conditions.

When comparing the genomes of the wild guinea pigs prior to and after exposure to increased temperatures, researchers identified significant biochemical modifications, specifically in genes responsible for encoding proteins responsible for protection against heat damage.

Their findings, recently published in the journal Molecular Ecology, suggest these adaptations result from a process known as epigenetics - a molecular mechanism that ultimately switches certain genes on and off in response to environmental changes, without altering one's DNA.

Previous research suggests similar epigenetic information is passed from mothers to their offspring after pregnancy. "However, in most wild mammal species, including wild guinea pigs, it is the males who leave their ancestral habitats and quickly adjust to varying environmental conditions such as temperatures during the search for females and new territories," Weyrich concluded in a statement.

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