- CRIOBE, CNRS, Perpignan, France
- Adaptation, Evolutionary Ecology, Genotype-Phenotype, Life History, Non Genetic Inheritance, Phenotypic Plasticity, Population Genetics / Genomics, Quantitative Genetics, Reproduction and Sex
Sensitive windows for within- and trans-generational plasticity of anti-predator defences
Sensitive windows for phenotypic plasticity within and across generations; where empirical results do not meet the theory but open a world of possibilitiesRecommended by Benoit Pujol based on reviews by David Murray-Stoker, Timothée Bonnet and Willem Frankenhuis
It is easy to define phenotypic plasticity as a mechanism by which traits change in response to a modification of the environment. Many complex mechanisms are nevertheless involved with plastic responses, their strength, and stability (e.g., reliability of cues, type of exposure, genetic expression, epigenetics). It is rather intuitive to think that environmental cues perceived at different stages of development will logically drive different phenotypic responses (Fawcett and Frankenhuis 2015). However, it has proven challenging to try and explain, or model how and why different effects are caused by similar cues experienced at different developmental or life stages (Walasek et al. 2022). The impact of these ‘sensitive windows’ on the stability of plastic responses within or across generations remains unclear. In their paper entitled “Sensitive windows for within- and trans-generational plasticity of anti-predator defences”, Tariel-Adam (2023) address this question.
In this paper, Tariel et al. acknowledge the current state of the art, i.e., that some traits influenced by the environment at early life stages become fixed later in life (Snell-Rood et al. 2015) and that sensitive windows are therefore more likely to be observed during early stages of development. Constructive exchanges with the reviewers illustrated that Tariel et al. presented a clear picture of the knowledge on sensitive windows from a conceptual and a mechanistic perspective, thereby providing their study with a strong and elegant rationale. Tariel et al. outlined that little is known about the significance of this scenario when it comes to transgenerational plasticity. Theory predicts that exposure late in the life of parents should be more likely to drive transgenerational plasticity because the cue perceived by parents is more likely to be reliable if time between parental exposure and offspring expression is short (McNamara et al. 2016). I would argue that although sensible, this scenario is likely oversimplifying the complexity of evolutionary, ecological, and inheritance mechanisms at play (Danchin et al. 2018). Tariel-Adam et al. (2023) point out in their paper how the absence of experimental results limits our understanding of the evolutionary and adaptive significance of transgenerational plasticity and decided to address this broad question.
Tariel-Adam et al. (2023) used the context of predator-prey interactions, which is a powerful framework to evaluate the temporality of predator cues and prey responses within and across generations (Sentis et al. 2018). They conducted a very elegant experiment whereby two generations of freshwater snails Physa acuta were exposed to crayfish predator cues at different developmental windows. They triggered the within-generation phenotypic plastic response of inducible defences (e.g., shell thickness) and identified sensitive windows as to evaluate their role in within-generation phenotypic plasticity versus transgenerational plasticity. They used different linear models, which lead to constructive exchanges with reviewers, and between reviewers, well trained on these approaches, in particular on effect sizes, that improved the paper by pushing the discussion all the way towards a consensus.
Tariel-Adam et al. (2023) results showed that the phenotypic plastic response of different traits was associated with different sensitive windows. Although early-life development was confirmed to be a sensitive window, it was far from being the only developmental stage driving within-generation plastic responses of defence traits. This finding contributes to change our views on plasticity because where theoretical models predict early- and late-life sensitive windows, empirical results gathered here present a more continuous opportunity for sensitive windows over the lifetime of freshwater snails. This is likely because multifactorial mechanisms drive the reliability and adaptive significance of predator cues. To me, this paper most original contribution lies probably in the empirical investigation of sensitive windows underlying transgenerational plasticity. Their finding implies mechanistic ties between sensitive windows driving within-generation and transgenerational plasticity for some traits, but they also shed light on the possible independence of these processes. Although one may be disheartened by these findings illustrating the ability of nature to combine complex mechanisms in order to produce somewhat unpredictable scenarios, one can only find that this unlimited range of phenotypic plasticity scenarios is a wonder to investigate because much remains to be understood. As mentioned in the conclusion of the paper, the opportunity for sensitive windows to drive such a range of plastic responses may also be an opportunity for organisms to adapt to a wide range of environmental demands.
Danchin E, A Pocheville, O Rey, B Pujol, and S Blanchet (2019). Epigenetically facilitated mutational assimilation: epigenetics as a hub within the inclusive evolutionary synthesis. Biological Reviews, 94: 259-282. https://doi.org/10.1111/brv.12453
Fawcett TW, and WE Frankenhuis (2015). Adaptive Explanations for Sensitive Windows in Development. Frontiers in Zoology 12, S3. https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-9994-12-S1-S3
McNamara JM, SRX Dall, P Hammerstein, and O Leimar (2016). Detection vs. Selection: Integration of Genetic, Epigenetic and Environmental Cues in Fluctuating Environments. Ecology Letters 19, 1267–1276. https://doi.org/10.1111/ele.12663
Sentis A, R Bertram, N Dardenne, et al. (2018). Evolution without standing genetic variation: change in transgenerational plastic response under persistent predation pressure. Heredity 121, 266–281. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-018-0108-8
Snell-Rood EC, EM Swanson, and RL Young (2015). Life History as a Constraint on Plasticity: Developmental Timing Is Correlated with Phenotypic Variation in Birds. Heredity 115, 379–388. https://doi.org/10.1038/hdy.2015.47
Tariel-Adam J, E Luquet, and S Plénet (2023). Sensitive windows for within- and trans-generational plasticity of anti-predator defences. OSF preprints, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Evolutionary Biology. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/mr8hu
Walasek N, WE Frankenhuis, and K Panchanathan (2022). An Evolutionary Model of Sensitive Periods When the Reliability of Cues Varies across Ontogeny. Behavioral Ecology 33, 101–114. https://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/arab113
Trait plasticity and covariance along a continuous soil moisture gradient
Another step towards grasping the complexity of the environmental response of traitsRecommended by Benoit Pujol based on reviews by 2 anonymous reviewers
One can only hope that one day, we will be able to evaluate how the ecological complexity surrounding natural populations affects their ability to adapt. This is more like a long term quest than a simple scientific aim. Many steps are heading in the right direction. This paper by Monroe and colleagues (2021) is one of them.
Many ecological and genetic mechanisms shape the evolutionary potential of phenotypic trait variation and many of them involve environmental heterogeneity (Pujol et al 2018). To date, we cannot look into these ecological and genetic mechanisms without oversimplifying their effects. We often look into trait variation one trait at a time albeit the variation of multiple phenotypic traits is often linked at the genetic or environmental level. As a consequence, we put our conclusions at risk by not accounting for the reciprocal impacts of trait changes upon each other (Teplitsky et al 2014). We also usually restrict the study of a continuous gradient of environmental conditions to a few conditions because it would otherwise be impossible to model its environmental effect. As a consequence, we miss the full picture of the continuous often nonlinear phenotypic plastic response. Whether the trait undergo threshold effect changes thereby remains obscured to us. Collectively, these issues impede our ability to understand how selection shapes the ecological strategy of organisms under variable environments.
In this paper, Monroe and colleagues (2021) propose an original approach that raised to these two challenges. They analysed phenotypic plastic changes in response to a continuous environment in a multidimensional trait space, namely the response of Brachypodium plant developmental and physiological traits to a continuous gradient of soil moisture. They used dry down experimental treatments to produce the continuous soil moisture gradient and compared the plant capacity to use water between annual B. distachyon and perennial B. sylvaticum. Their results revealed the best mathematical functions that model the nonlinear curvature of the continuous plastic response of Brachypodium plants. This work reinforces our view that nonlinear plastic responses can result in greater or lesser trait values at any stage of the environmental gradient that were unexpected on the basis of linear predictors (Gienapp and Brommer 2014). Their findings also imply that different threshold responses characterize different genotypes. These could otherwise have been missed by a classical approach. By shedding light on unforeseen interactions between traits that make their correlation vary along the nonlinear response, they were able to describe more accurately Brachypodium ecological strategies and the changes in evolutionary constraints along the soil moisture gradient.
Their empirical approach allows to test what environmental conditions maximises the opportunity for selection to shape trait variation. For example, it revealed unforeseen divergence in potentially adaptive mechanisms or life history strategies – and not just trait values – between annual and perennial species of Brachypodium. Behind every environmental variation of the constraints to the future evolutionary change of multiple traits, we can expect that the evolutionary history of the populations shaped their trait genetic correlations. Investigating the nonlinear signature of adaptive evolution across continuous environments will get us into uncharted territory.
Our ability to predict the adaptive potential of species is limited. With their approach of continuous environmental gradients beyond linearity, Monroe and collaborators (2021) improve our understanding of plant phenotypic responses and open a brand new range of exciting developments. As they mention: "the opportunity for scaling up" their approach is big. To illustrate this prospect, I can easily think of an example: the quantitative genetic random regression model. This model allows to use any degree of genetic relatedness in a wild population to estimate the genetic variation of phenotypic plastic reaction norms (Nussey et al 2007, Pujol and Galaud 2013). However, in this approach, only a few modalities of the environmental gradient are used to model nonlinear phenotypic plastic responses. From there, it is rather intuitive. Combining the best of these two approaches (continuity of genetic relatedness in the wild & continuity of environmental gradient in experiments) could open ground breaking new perspectives in research.
Gienapp P. & J.E. Brommer. 2014. Evolutionary dynamics in response to climate change. In: Charmentier A, Garant D, Kruuk LEB, editors. Quantitative genetics in the wild. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford. pp. 254–273. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199674237.003.0015
Monroe, J. G., Cai, H., and Des Marais, D. L. (2020). Trait plasticity and covariance along a continuous soil moisture gradient. bioRxiv, 2020.02.17.952853, ver. 5 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Evol Biol. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.17.952853
Pujol et al. (2018). The missing response to selection in the wild. Trends in ecology & evolution, 33(5), 337-346. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2018.02.007
Pujol, B., and Galaud, J. P. (2013). A practical guide to quantifying the effect of genes underlying adaptation in a mixed genomics and evolutionary ecology approach. Botany Letters, 160(3-4), 197-204. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/12538078.2013.799045
Nussey, D. H., Wilson, A. J., and Brommer, J. E. (2007). The evolutionary ecology of individual phenotypic plasticity in wild populations. Journal of evolutionary biology, 20(3), 831-844. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1420-9101.2007.01300.x
Teplitsky et al. (2014). Assessing multivariate constraints to evolution across ten long-term avian studies. PLoS One, 9(3), e90444. doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0090444