Institut für Evolution und Ökologie

Epigenetic diversity of grassland plants in the Biodiversity Exploratories (EpiDiv)


Bence Gáspár, Shirley Deng, Walter Durka (UFZ Halle), Oliver Bossdorf


Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)


May 2014 - April 2017

In a nutshell

Epigenetic diversity within species could be an important, but so far overlooked, aspect of biodiversity that affects the ecology and evolution of species. In this project, we comprehensively assess – for the first time – natural epigenetic diversity across a broad geographic range of several common grassland species, and test for its environmental, ecological and genetic correlates.

Project description

The biological diversity within species is important not only for evolution and adaptation, but also for population and ecosystem processes. In the past, such within-species diversity was assumed to arise only from genetic (= DNA sequence) diversity. However, recent evidence suggests that epigenetic diversity alone can also create variation in ecologically important traits and may thus be of ecological and evolutionary significance. Still, most of our current knowledge comes from studies with model organisms, whereas we know next to nothing about the true extent of epigenetic diversity in natural populations, let alone its ecological and evolutionary significance.

In this project, we take advantage of the research platform of the Biodiversity Exploratories to assess natural epigenetic diversity in common grassland plants and test for its environmental, ecological and genetic correlates. Specifically, our goals are to:

  1. quantify epigenetic diversity (variation in DNA methylation) within and among populations of common grassland plants,
  2. test the effects of human land use on epigenetic diversity,
  3. examine relationships between plant genetic, epigenetic and phenotypic diversity, and
  4. build expertise in established and next-generation molecular methods for ecological-epigenetic studies.


We selected five common grassland species for the the study (Bromus hordeaceus, Cerastium holosteoides, Trifolium repens, Medicago lupulina, Veronica chamaedrys), and we took leaf samples from multiple populations of each of these species in the three Biodiversity Exploratories regions across Germany. We have currently begun to analyze field collected leaf samples with MSAP (methylation-sensitive amplified polymorphism) markers. We are also establishing a common garden, in which we will grow the same plants from field-collected seeds and then repeat sampling and MSAP analyses, to disentangle plastic and heritable components of epigenetic diversity. In addition to the MSAP method, we will also employ next-generation methods of epigenotyping and bisulfite-sequencing to explore epigenetic diversity in greater depth, and to compare the different methods.



There are no publications from this project yet.