Temporal changes in DNA methylation and RNA expression in a small song bird: within- and between-tissue comparisons

Melanie Lindner*, I.C. Verhagen, Heidi Viitaniemi, Veronika N. Laine, M.E. Visser, Arild Husby, C.H.J. van Oers*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


DNA methylation is likely a key mechanism regulating changes in gene transcription in traits that show temporal fluctuations in response to environmental conditions. To understand the transcriptional role of DNA methylation we need simultaneous within-individual assessment of methylation changes and gene expression changes over time. Within-individual repeated sampling of tissues, which are essential for trait expression is, however, unfeasible (e.g. specific brain regions, liver and ovary for reproductive timing). Here, we explore to what extend between-individual changes in DNA methylation in a tissue accessible for repeated sampling (red blood cells (RBCs)) reflect such patterns in a tissue unavailable for repeated sampling (liver) and how these DNA methylation patterns are associated with gene expression in such inaccessible tissues (hypothalamus, ovary and liver). For this, 18 great tit (Parus major) females were sacrificed at three time points (n = 6 per time point) throughout the pre-laying and egg-laying period and their blood, hypothalamus, ovary and liver were sampled.

We simultaneously assessed DNA methylation changes (via reduced representation bisulfite sequencing) and changes in gene expression (via RNA-seq and qPCR) over time. In general, we found a positive correlation between changes in CpG site methylation in RBCs and liver across timepoints. For CpG sites in close proximity to the transcription start site, an increase in RBC methylation over time was associated with a decrease in the expression of the associated gene in the ovary. In contrast, no such association with gene expression was found for CpG site methylation within the gene body or the 10 kb up- and downstream regions adjacent to the gene body.

Temporal changes in DNA methylation are largely tissue-general, indicating that changes in RBC methylation can reflect changes in DNA methylation in other, often less accessible, tissues such as the liver in our case. However, associations between temporal changes in DNA methylation with changes in gene expression are mostly tissue- and genomic location-dependent. The observation that temporal changes in DNA methylation within RBCs can relate to changes in gene expression in less accessible tissues is important for a better understanding of how environmental conditions shape traits that temporally change in expression in wild populations.
Original languageEnglish
Article number36
JournalBMC Genomics
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jan 2021


  • DNA methylation
  • RNA expression
  • tissue-specific and tissue-general temporal changes
  • accessible and inaccessible tissues
  • great tit


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  • Parus major Genome sequencing and assembly

    Laine, V. N. (Creator), Gossmann, T. I. (Creator), Schachtschneider, K. (Creator), Garroway, C. J. (Creator), Madsen, O. (Creator), Verhoeven, K. J. F. (Creator), De Jager, V. (Creator), Megens, H. (Creator), Warren, W. C. (Creator), Minx, P. (Creator), Crooijmans, R. (Creator), Corcoran, P. (Creator), Adriaensen, F. (Creator), Belda, E. (Creator), Bushuev, A. (Creator), Cichon, M. (Creator), Charmantier, A. (Creator), Dingemanse, N. (Creator), Doligez, B. (Creator), Eeva, T. (Creator), Erikstad, K. E. (Creator), Fedorov, S. (Creator), Hau, M. (Creator), Hille, S. (Creator), Hinde, C. (Creator), Kempenaers, B. (Creator), Kerimov, A. (Creator), Krist, M. (Creator), Mand, R. (Creator), Matthysen, E. (Creator), Nager, R. (Creator), Norte, C. (Creator), Orell, M. (Creator), Richner, H. (Creator), Slagsvold, T. (Creator), Tilgar, V. (Creator), Tinbergen, J. (Creator), Torok, J. (Creator), Tschirren, B. (Creator), Yuta, T. (Creator), Sheldon, B. C. (Creator), Slate, J. (Creator), Zeng, K. (Creator), van Oers, K. (Creator), Visser, M. (Creator) & Groenen, M. A. M. (Creator), Wageningen University, 17 Jun 2013


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