Social effects on the baboon epigenome: critical periods or lifelong plasticity?
Humans and other primates live in complex social environments. Within these societies, some individuals frequently engage in social interactions, while others do not; similarly, only some individuals achieve high social status. Research across primate species suggests that this variation in social experiences can have profound effects on physiology, reproduction, and survival; yet, despite strong evidence that adverse social conditions (e.g., social isolation or low social status) negatively affect health, we do not understand how they do so. To address this gap, my project tests the hypothesis that social conditions influence health-related traits by altering the way genes are regulated. Specifically, it asks whether low social status and/or social isolation (in both early life and adulthood) lead to changes in DNA methylation, an environmentally sensitive modifier of gene regulation. To do so, I will combine behavioral data from wild female baboons in the Amboseli ecosystem of Kenya with measures of genome-wide DNA methylation levels. The resulting analyses will shed new light on (i) which genes and biological pathways are affected by social challenges and (ii) when in an individual’s lifetime social experiences matter most. Together, these results will inform our understanding of how primate sociality shapes our epigenomes, including how we might best focus intervention efforts to offset the consequences of social adversity. (website)