Genetics Versus Epigenetics: Tameability

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Phasoli
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Genetics Versus Epigenetics: Tameability

Post by Phasoli » Fri Jan 27, 2017 9:31 pm

We've entered an interesting unit in biology called Epigenetics recently, which is the study of modifications within an organism that aren't changes that occur within the DNA coding itself. Inactive genes are coiled and largely unreadable whilst active genes are uncoiled and easily accessible. These changes are responses to the organism's environment, and signals from other cells.

The lab today visited the behavioural adjustment found within rats. The study suggested that rat-mothers who tended for their young and were more affectionate raised more relaxed partners. This interaction had stimulated the activation of the genes relating to a calmer disposition. On the other end of the spectrum, negligent mothers raised anxious and fearful offspring. The manipulated variable is the amount of attention and affection the rats were given at a young age.

So my question is: Is Wolf and Dog Tamability Epigenetic or Genetic?

Are the results relating to wild behaviour and anxiety in wolves genetic, or can they be altered depending on their environment? And to what extent can wolves be tamed in this way?

(I'll gladly provide links to the source of this information upon request)
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Re: Genetics Versus Epigenetics: Tameability

Post by Dogged » Fri Apr 07, 2017 8:06 pm

Hi Phasoli,

Did you end up Googling the question for yourself? I assume most people here don't have the necessary background to answer your question. If you still want some help with it though, I can try to interpret the literature for you. I took an undergraduate course in epigenetics. Let me know!
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Re: Genetics Versus Epigenetics: Tameability

Post by Phasoli » Fri Apr 07, 2017 10:18 pm

Thank you so much! I'm thankful that you reached out to me!

Yes, I have researched the topic of genetics and tame-ability myself, but I haven't found a conclusion that directly relates to Wolves in particular. I've spent time reading through articles about the Fox Domestication Project, which is probably as close as I had gotten to a solid answer. According to the project, foxes from vicious parents turned out to remain vicious, even after being raised by a tame mother, suggesting that the gene is genetic.

So do wolves and dogs express these same qualities, to where the pup of a wild wolf raised by a dog would remain vicious? Or would the pup suddenly express a calmer, docile disposition after being raised by the dog? Thanks so much for your help--I'd absolutely love it if you broke your studies down to me. What I am learning here will contribute to the characterization of some of my original characters! So I thank you a thousandfold!
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Re: Genetics Versus Epigenetics: Tameability

Post by Dogged » Tue Apr 11, 2017 2:55 pm

I'm happy to help—it is good for my understanding to refresh on old concepts and read some literature!

For everyone reading these posts, a little more background. Epigenetics is one of the hottest topics in molecular biology right now. As Phasoli outlined above, "epigenetics" refers to chemical changes to how DNA is packaged and expressed that don't actually change the DNA sequence itself. I'll spare you the details on what those chemical changes are, because they aren't important to the question beyond knowing that they exist. The prefix "epi-" means "on, above, or in addition". So for epigenetics, on a physical level, think of it as molecular-scale changes happening around the DNA helix that don't actually change the sequence itself: only how that sequence is eventually expressed by the cell.

Here's a basic example. You tape some buttons down on one TV remote, and leave another identical TV remote's buttons completely un-taped. Both remotes still have the same buttons on them, but the tape acts like an epigenetic modification in that the taped buttons won't operate the same anymore. A gene in DNA that is epigenetically modified might not express the same as one that isn't modified!

Phasoli is asking about transgenerational epigenetics. In other words, how the gene expression pattern influenced by the environmental experiences of the parent can be passed onto offspring. In recent years (post 2000s), transgenerational epigenetic studies on humans and other animals have appeared and captured the public's interest. Human, plant, and animal studies like the ones Phasoli mentioned have provided different sources of evidence for heritable changes to gene expression patterns.

For those out of the loop, the summary of that fox study is: rigorous human-driven selection on a large population of fur farm silver foxes for a trait termed "tameability" resulted in behavioural, morphological, and physiological changes in the offspring as early as two generations (Trut et al. 2009). In more detail, fourth generation offspring and beyond began to display domestic/dog-like behaviours such as tail-wagging, whining, or licking when humans were present; morphological changes include the instance of floppy ears, curly tails, wider skulls, shorter limbs, and coat color changes, among others.

But back to the main question: is tameability epigenetic or genetic, and how could one apply the results of this study to other canine species? In the results section of that paper I cited above, the authors write the following:
It appears plausible that the phenotypic novelties in the experimental fox population could be due to changes in gene activity, largely in its epigenetic modification.
The key word is "plausible". The authors don't really know the exact nature of the underlying mechanisms, which is a sciency way of saying that they need to conduct more research on which genes (genetic) and which expression patterns (epigenetic) are causing these special foxes to appear and act how they do. So tameability could be both a genetic and epigenetic phenomenon. We don't know yet.

You also asked:
So do wolves and dogs express these same qualities, to where the pup of a wild wolf raised by a dog would remain vicious? Or would the pup suddenly express a calmer, docile disposition after being raised by the dog?
The pup of a wild wolf raised by a dog would indeed remain vicious or untamed. Remember, that wolf pup's ancestors have not been selected for tameability for several generations beforehand like the fur farm silver foxes were!

I hope that answered your questions, Phasoli. I hadn't read into Trut's work at all with the foxes before, so I learned some things too. Let me know if you need any clarification on anything I've said here. I'm glad to see you asking questions based on what you learn in school!
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Re: Genetics Versus Epigenetics: Tameability

Post by Phasoli » Fri Apr 14, 2017 3:42 pm

Oh my goodness! You're amazing, Dogged! Thank you so much! Your response was thorough yet easy to understand.
So what I am gathering is, scientists are still relatively unsure whether or not tameability is completely genetic or epigenetic. Would it be safe to say that tameability likely is influenced by both factors?

I thank you again and a thousand times more! Your response has made my day. :D
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It's the imaginary friend you drink tea
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Re: Genetics Versus Epigenetics: Tameability

Post by Dogged » Sat Apr 15, 2017 11:13 am

You're welcome Phasoli :).
So what I am gathering is, scientists are still relatively unsure whether or not tameability is completely genetic or epigenetic. Would it be safe to say that tameability likely is influenced by both factors?
It would be safe to say that tameability is likely influenced by both factors, because we haven't ruled out or totally confirmed what the molecular mechanisms are behind the observations seen in these foxes or other domesticated animals. There have been several published examples of diet and epigenetic change though. If you're curious, Google "Dutch hunger winter" for a human example!

Here is the citation for that paper I cited in my post above. You might not be able to see all of its contents without a subscription, but anyone can read the abstract at least:
  • Trut L., Oskina I., and Kharlamova A. 2009. Animal evolution during domestication: the domesticated fox as a model. Bioessays 31(3): 349-360.
Again, glad I could help you!
— Dogged

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Re: Genetics Versus Epigenetics: Tameability

Post by Phasoli » Wed Apr 19, 2017 4:02 am

Thank you very much!

I'll have to check these articles out!
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It's the imaginary friend you drink tea
with in the afternoon.
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Re: Genetics Versus Epigenetics: Tameability

Post by Koa » Wed Apr 19, 2017 7:38 am

Thank you so much, Dogged. Seeing as your question has been answered, I will lock this thread.
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