Rapid changes in DNA methylation associated with the initiation of reproduction in a small songbird

Melanie Lindner*, Veronika N. Laine, Irene Verhagen, Heidi M. Viitaniemi, Marcel E. Visser, Kees van Oers, Arild Husby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Species with a circannual life cycle need to match the timing of their life history events to the environment to maximize fitness. However, our understanding of how circannual traits such as timing of reproduction are regulated on a molecular level remains limited. Recent studies have implicated that epigenetic mechanisms can be an important part in the processes that regulate circannual traits. Here, we explore the role of DNA methylation in mediating reproductive timing in a seasonally breeding bird species, the great tit (Parus major), using genome-wide DNA methylation data from individual females that were blood sampled repeatedly throughout the breeding season. We demonstrate rapid and directional changes in DNA methylation within the promoter region of several genes, including a key transcription factor (NR5A1) known from earlier studies to be involved in the initiation of timing of reproduction. Interestingly, the observed changes in DNA methylation at NR5A1 identified here are in line with earlier gene expression studies of reproduction in chicken, indicating that the observed shifts in DNA methylation at this gene can have a regulatory role. Our findings provide an important step towards elucidating the genomic mechanism that mediates seasonal timing of a key life history traits and provide support for the idea that epigenetic mechanisms may play an important role in circannual traits.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3645-3659
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number15
Early online date16 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • avian reproductive timing
  • DNA methylation
  • ecological epigenetics
  • life history traits
  • Parus major


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