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Stress & Epigenetics: Epigenetic modifications of gene expression by environmental stressors

Dr. Amber Makowicz - Hector Fellow Axel Meyer
Daniela Conrad - Hector Fellow Thomas Elbert

In diesem Projekt forschen die Hector Fellows Thomas Elbert und Axel Meyer. Sie untersuchen den Einfluss von umgebungsbedingtem Stress auf epigenetische Veränderungen der Genexpression. Axel Meyer arbeitet am Modell von Fischen zusammen mit der Postdoktorandin Dr. Amber Makowicz an der Erforschung des Einflusses von Stress bei Eltern auf nachhaltige maladaptive Verhaltensänderungen im Nachwuchs. Thomas Elbert erforscht gemeinsam mit der Doktorandin Daniela Conrad die genetischen Pfade, die im Menschen Posttraumatische Belastungsstörungen (PTBS) beeinflussen und wie solche Störungen erfolgreich behandelt werden können.

Projektbeschreibung Daniela Conrad

Epigenetic effects of parental stress in offspring 

Dr. Amber Makowicz - Hector Fellow Axel Meyer

Chronic stress has been related to major mental disorders through changes in the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (an important stress response found in all vertebrates) and is most notable through changes in DNA methylation. The most common mental disorders that occur from chronic stress are depression and anxiety, although other psychopathological disorders may also occur. Mothers are thought to be the primary influencer of offspring development, most especially in regards to neurodevelopment. Indeed, recent studies have shown that prenatal stress, the stress the mother receives during pregnancy, has profound effects on the offspring, resulting in children that are more stressed, prone to mental disorders, and have significant alterations in DNA methylation of the glucocorticoid receptor. Evidence is mounting that suggests that some of these epigenetic effects may even be transmitted transgenerationally and thus are directly affecting evolution.

Poeciliids as a Model System

Poeciliids are great models to test the effects of stress: they are small, livebearing fish that have short generation times, are manipulative, and allow controls for potential placental effects and parental care behaviors (see Figure). They are freshwater fish native to the Americas. Most species are sexual dimorphic, where females are larger than males. They typically give live birth to numerous offspring every 20-30 day throughout the year, depending on the species. There is no maternal or paternal care in any of the species, which provides a perfect control for the potential influence of parental behaviors on the offsprings’ behaviors. Most importantly, however, is that some species are matrotrophic featuring a placenta-like structure and are able to transfer additional nutrients to offspring during pregnancy, while others are lecitotrophic and show no additional maternal transfer beyond the yoking of the egg. Given this wide diversity found within the family of Poeciliids, they provide the perfect model system to study the effects of maternal stress.

Our goal: To test the effects of stress on long-lasting maladaptive behavioral changes in offspring of stressed parents and determine how long these changes might be transmitted to subsequent generations. This research will allow us to better understand how environmental stressors influence gene expression and behaviors of offspring. Most importantly, it allows us to better understand the possible evolutionary origins of psychopathological disorders in children.


Stress & Epigenetik: Wie Fische zur Behandlung posttraumatischer Belastungsstörungen beitragen – Ein interdisziplinäres Forschungsprojekt von Prof. Dr. Axel Meyer & Prof. Dr. Thomas Elbert

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