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Gene expression underlying parenting and being parented shows limited plasticity in response to different ambient temperatures


Moss, Jeanette; Cunningham, Christopher; McKinney, Elizabeth; Moore, Allen (2022), Gene expression underlying parenting and being parented shows limited plasticity in response to different ambient temperatures, Dryad, Dataset,


Flexible interactions between parents and offspring are essential for buffering families against variable, unpredictable, and challenging environmental conditions. In the subsocial carrion beetle, Nicrophorus orbicollis, mid-summer temperatures impose steep fitness costs on parents and offspring but do not elicit behavioral plasticity in parents. Here, we ask if plasticity of gene expression underpins this behavioral stability or facilitates independent compensation by larvae. To test this, we characterized gene expression of parents and offspring before and during active parenting under benign (20°C) and stressful (24°C) temperatures to identify genes of parents and offspring associated with thermal response, parenting/being parented, and gene expression plasticity associated with behavioral stability of parental care. The main effects of thermal and social condition each shaped patterns of gene expression in females, males, and larvae. In addition, we implicated 79 genes in females as ‘buffering’ parental behavior across environments. The majority of these underwent significant changes in expression in actively parenting mothers at the benign temperature, but not at the stressful temperature. Our results suggest that neither genetic programs for parenting nor their effects on offspring gene expression are fundamentally different under stressful conditions, and that behavioral stability is associated primarily with the maintenance of existing genetic programs rather than replacement or supplementation. Thus, while selection for compensatory gene expression could expand the range of thermal conditions parents will tolerate, without expanding the toolkit of genes involved selection is unlikely to lead to adaptive changes of function.


DNA was extracted from the heads and full bodies of adult and larval burying beetles, respectively, in a 3 x 2 x 2 factorial design: 3 family members (males, females, larvae), 2 thermal conditions (20°C and 24°C), and 2 social conditions (before and during parenting/being parented). Transcripts were filtered and quantified using StringTie and all subsequent analysis steps were performed in R. 

Usage notes

This analysis uses the free programming software, R, along with the following packages: