Investigation into the role of the germline epigenome in the transmission of glucocorticoid-programmed effects across generations.
BACKGROUND: Early life exposure to adverse environments affects cardiovascular and metabolic systems in the offspring. These programmed effects are transmissible to a second generation through both male and female lines, suggesting germline transmission. We have previously shown that prenatal overexposure to the synthetic glucocorticoid dexamethasone (Dex) in rats reduces birth weight in the first generation (F1), a phenotype which is transmitted to a second generation (F2), particularly through the male line. We hypothesize that Dex exposure affects developing germ cells, resulting in transmissible alterations in DNA methylation, histone marks and/or small RNA in the male germline. RESULTS: We profile epigenetic marks in sperm from F1 Sprague Dawley rats expressing a germ cell-specific GFP transgene following Dex or vehicle treatment of the mothers, using methylated DNA immunoprecipitation sequencing, small RNA sequencing and chromatin immunoprecipitation sequencing for H3K4me3, H3K4me1, H3K27me3 and H3K9me3. Although effects on birth weight are transmitted to the F2 generation through the male line, no differences in DNA methylation, histone modifications or small RNA were detected between germ cells and sperm from Dex-exposed animals and controls. CONCLUSIONS: Although the phenotype is transmitted to a second generation, we are unable to detect specific changes in DNA methylation, common histone modifications or small RNA profiles in sperm. Dex exposure is associated with more variable 5mC levels, particularly at non-promoter loci. Although this could be one mechanism contributing to the observed phenotype, other germline epigenetic modifications or non-epigenetic mechanisms may be responsible for the transmission of programmed effects across generations in this model.