Epigenetic responses to temperature and climate change

Beth Mccaw* (Corresponding Author), Tyler J. Stevenson, Lesley T. Lancaster

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)
6 Downloads (Pure)


Epigenetics represents a widely accepted set of mechanisms by which organisms respond to the environment by regulating phenotypic plasticity and life history transitions. Understanding the effects of environmental control on phenotypes and fitness, via epigenetic mechanisms, is essential for understanding the ability of organisms to rapidly adapt to environmental change. This review highlights the significance of environmental temperature on epigenetic control of phenotypic variation, with the aim of furthering our understanding of how epigenetics might help or hinder species' adaptation to climate change. It outlines how epigenetic modifications, including DNA methylation and histone/chromatin modification, (1) respond to temperature and regulate thermal stress responses in different kingdoms of life, (2) regulate temperature-dependent expression of key developmental processes, sex determination, and seasonal phenotypes, (3) facilitate transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of thermal adaptation, (4) adapt populations to local and global climate gradients, and finally (5) facilitate in biological invasions across climate regions. Although the evidence points towards a conserved role of epigenetics in responding to temperature change, there appears to be an element of temperature- and species-specificity in the specific effects of temperature change on epigenetic modifications and resulting phenotypic responses. The review identifies areas of future research in epigenetic responses to environmental temperature change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1469-1480
Number of pages12
JournalIntegrative and Comparative Biology
Issue number6
Early online date29 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 16 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Thank you to the organisers of the SICB 2020 symposium “Epigenetic regulation of Endocrine Regulation in Natural Populations” for the invitation to submit, and for all of the symposium participants for helpful discussions.


  • Epigenetics
  • thermal response
  • stress
  • acclimation/acclimatization
  • adaptation
  • phenotypic plasticity
  • life history traits
  • developmental programming
  • seasonality
  • temperature-dependent sex determination
  • transgenerational plasticity
  • phenology
  • invasive species
  • climate change


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