Variation in the Large-Scale Organization of Gene Expression Levels in the Hippocampus Relates to Stable Epigenetic Variability in Behavior

Alter, Mark D.; Rubin, Daniel B.; Ramsey, Keri; Halpern, Rebecca; Stephan, Dietrich A.; Abbott, Larry; Hen, Rene


Despite sharing the same genes, identical twins demonstrate substantial variability in behavioral traits and in their risk for disease. Epigenetic factors–DNA and chromatin modifications that affect levels of gene expression without affecting the DNA sequence–are thought to be important in establishing this variability. Epigenetically-mediated differences in the levels of gene expression that are associated with individual variability traditionally are thought to occur only in a gene-specific manner. We challenge this idea by exploring the large-scale organizational patterns of gene expression in an epigenetic model of behavioral variability.


To study the effects of epigenetic influences on behavioral variability, we examine gene expression in genetically identical mice. Using a novel approach to microarray analysis, we show that variability in the large-scale organization of gene expression levels, rather than differences in the expression levels of specific genes, is associated with individual differences in behavior. Specifically, increased activity in the open field is associated with increased variance of log-transformed measures of gene expression in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in open field activity. Early life experience that increases adult activity in the open field also similarly modifies the variance of gene expression levels. The same association of the variance of gene expression levels with behavioral variability is found with levels of gene expression in the hippocampus of genetically heterogeneous outbred populations of mice, suggesting that variation in the large-scale organization of gene expression levels may also be relevant to phenotypic differences in outbred populations such as humans. We find that the increased variance in gene expression levels is attributable to an increasing separation of several large, log-normally distributed families of gene expression levels. We also show that the presence of these multiple log-normal distributions of gene expression levels is a universal characteristic of gene expression in eurkaryotes. We use data from the MicroArray Quality Control Project (MAQC) to demonstrate that our method is robust and that it reliably detects biological differences in the large-scale organization of gene expression levels.


Our results contrast with the traditional belief that epigenetic effects on gene expression occur only at the level of specific genes and suggest instead that the large-scale organization of gene expression levels provides important insights into the relationship of gene expression with behavioral variability. Understanding the epigenetic, genetic, and environmental factors that regulate the large-scale organization of gene expression levels, and how changes in this large-scale organization influences brain development and behavior will be a major future challenge in the field of behavioral genomics.


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Public Library of Science
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March 8, 2016