Socioecological Predictors of Gene Regulation in a Wild Primate Population
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The environment dictates many facets of animals’ lives, including how long individuals live and their physiology, fertility, and health along the way. While environment-responsive changes in gene regulation likely play a role in this relationship, we rarely have a clear understanding of the socioenvironmental determinants of gene regulation in natural primate populations. My dissertation addresses this gap by linking longitudinal observations of environmental experiences to measures of gene regulation in wild baboons from a long-term field study in Kenya. By adopting a genome-scale perspective, I investigate (i) whether distinct environmental stressors are reflected in distinct changes in gene regulation, and whether there are sex differences in these relationships, and (ii) what pathways are sensitive to environmental adversity, and whether these pathways overlap across different sources of stress. In chapter one, I test whether environmental stressors accelerate the aging process. I show that, according to a DNA methylation-based “epigenetic clock,” high ranking males experience accelerated aging. In chapter two, I test for links between variation in the adult social environment (social status and social bond strength) and blood-based gene expression. I demonstrate that dominance rank in male and female baboons has directionally opposite links to gene regulation, and that social bonds uniquely predict a more robust response to simulated bacterial threat. In chapter three, I systematically test the hypothesis that biological embedding via DNA methylation translates early life experience into lasting phenotypic effects in adulthood. I find widespread, and often overlapping, associations between major sources or early life adversity and DNA methylation measured in adulthood. Taken together, my work underscores the close ties between fitness-relevant environments and gene regulation in wild primates, including the existence of some pathways that are broadly sensitive to multiple types of environmental stressors. These contributions help fill important gaps in our understanding of the complex mechanisms that connect socioenvironmental variation, phenotype, and evolution in the primate lineage.
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