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Genetic basis and functional consequences of pre- and post-hatching parental effects

Final Report Summary - GENPREPAR (Genetic basis and functional consequences of pre- and post-hatching parental effects.)

Project context and objectives

Parental effects, i.e. the expression of offspring traits depending upon the influence of parental phenotype, have become a major focus of interest in behavioural and evolutionary biology. They represent potentially very important epigenetic components of offspring phenotype that can advance, slow or even reverse phenotypic changes in response to selection. It is very important to understand the genetic and epigenetic basis of traits because this determines how these traits respond to environmental change, how they respond to selection and how they determine the phenotype of individuals over a lifetime. This is also highly relevant for practical decisions in animal breeding, human medicine or psychology and conservation, since very different approaches are required according to whether the traits are plastic within individuals, epigenetically between generations or genetically determined.

Project results

This project aimed at studying the genetic basis of pre-hatching parent-offspring interactions and their influence on post-hatching parent-offspring interactions in a laboratory model species, the zebra finch. In the course of the experiments, data on parental traits (morphology and behaviour) and offspring behaviour (growth and behaviour) over multiple generations have been collected. The parental environment (day-length and food) was manipulated to test how parents are affected by the environment and whether this has consequences for their offspring. We found clear evidence that parents respond to their environment and this is transmitted to the first-generation offspring, who in turn respond differentially to their environment, so that third-generation offspring are also affected. Thus, parental effects last over several generations. We also studied offspring responsiveness to their environment and offspring behaviour which can act as signals for parents (begging), and found that this differs between populations (wild-type and domesticated birds), families, as well as within families according to hatch order and sex, suggesting both genetic and non-genetic factors. Individuals were types for genetic markers that were developed or analysed in collaboration (microsatellites, SNP), which allows us to test for a genetic basis of direct and indirect (parental) effects.

The analysis of the multi-generational phenotypic and genetic data is still in progress. Please see http://www.uni-bielefeld.de/biologie/vhf/NE/index.html for more information.