Environmental fluctuation during embryonic and fetal development can permanently alter an organism’s morphology, physiology, and behaviour. This phenomenon, known as developmental plasticity, is particularly relevant to reptiles that develop in subterranean nests with variable oxygen tensions. Previous work has shown hypoxia permanently alters the cardiovascular system of snapping turtles and may improve cardiac anoxia tolerance later in life. The mechanisms driving this process are unknown but may involve epigenetic regulation of gene expression via DNA methylation. To test this hypothesis, we assessed in situ cardiac performance during 2 h of acute anoxia in juvenile turtles previously exposed to normoxia (21% oxygen) or hypoxia (10% oxygen) during embryogenesis. Next, we analysed DNA methylation and gene expression patterns in turtles from the same cohorts using whole genome bisulfite sequencing, which represents the first high-resolution investigation of DNA methylation patterns in any reptilian species.
Genome-wide correlations between CpG and CpG island methylation and gene expression patterns in the snapping turtle were consistent with patterns observed in mammals. As hypothesized, developmental hypoxia increased juvenile turtle cardiac anoxia tolerance and programmed DNA methylation and gene expression patterns. Programmed differences in expression of genes such as
Our data strongly suggests that DNA methylation plays a conserved role in the regulation of gene expression in reptiles. We also show that embryonic hypoxia programs DNA methylation and gene expression patterns and that these changes are associated with enhanced cardiac anoxia tolerance later in life. Programming of cardiac anoxia tolerance has major ecological implications for snapping turtles, because these animals regularly exploit anoxic environments throughout their lifespan.