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Programming of Extreme Anoxia Tolernace in Turtle Hearts

Turtle developmental programming

Environmental fluctuation during embryonic and fetal development can permanently alter an organism's morphology, physiology, and behaviour. This phenomenon, known as developmental plasticity, is particularly relevant to reptiles that develop in subterranean nests with variable oxygen tensions. Previous work has shown hypoxia permanently alters the cardiovascular system of snapping turtles and may improve cardiac anoxia tolerance later in life. The mechanisms driving this process are unknown but may involve epigenetic regulation of gene expression via DNA methylation.

To test this hypothesis, we assessed in situ cardiac performance during 2 h of acute anoxia in juvenile turtles previously exposed to normoxia (21% oxygen) or hypoxia (10% oxygen) during embryogenesis. Next, we analysed DNA methylation and gene expression patterns in turtles from the same cohorts using whole genome bisulfite sequencing, which represents the first high-resolution investigation of DNA methylation patterns in any reptilian species.

How did Developmental Hypoxia affect the turtle heart?

Effects of developmental hypoxia on the turtle heart
  • As hypothesized, developmental hypoxia increased juvenile turtle cardiac anoxia tolerance and programmed DNA methylation and gene expression patterns.

  • Turtles that came from hypoxic incubations were able to maintain heart rate and cardiac output during anoxia at much higher levels than their normoxic counterparts 

  • Genome-wide correlations between CpG and CpG island methylation and gene expression patterns in the snapping turtle were consistent with patterns observed in mammals.

  • Programmed differences in expression of genes such as SCN5A may account for differences in heart rate, while genes such as TNNT2 and TPM3 may underlie differences in calcium sensitivity and contractility of cardiomyocytes and cardiac inotropy.

  • Finally, we identified putative transcription factor-binding sites in promoters and in differentially methylated CpG islands that suggest a model linking programming of DNA methylation during embryogenesis to differential gene expression and cardiovascular physiology later in life. Binding sites for hypoxia inducible factors (HIF1A, ARNT, and EPAS1) and key transcription factors activated by MAPK and BMP signaling (RREB1 and SMAD4) are implicated.

Turtle developmental programming
  • Our data strongly suggests that DNA methylation plays a conserved role in the regulation of gene expression in reptiles. We also show that embryonic hypoxia programs DNA methylation and gene expression patterns and that these changes are associated with enhanced cardiac anoxia tolerance later in life. Programming of cardiac anoxia tolerance has major ecological implications for snapping turtles, because these animals regularly exploit anoxic environments throughout their lifespan.

Relevant Papers

Ruhr I, Bierstedt J, Rhen T, Das D, Singh SK, Miller S, Crossley DA 2nd, Galli GLJ. Developmental programming of DNA methylation and gene expression patterns is associated with extreme cardiovascular tolerance to anoxia in the common snapping turtle. Epigenetics Chromatin. 2021 Sep 6;14(1):42. doi: 10.1186/s13072-021-00414-7. PMID: 34488850; PMCID: PMC8420019.

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