Biological Invasions

, Volume 20, Issue 9, pp 2285–2300 | Cite as

Understanding the role of DNA methylation in successful biological invasions: a review

  • Nicola A. HawesEmail author
  • Andrew E. Fidler
  • Louis A. Tremblay
  • Xavier Pochon
  • Brendon J. Dunphy
  • Kirsty F. Smith


Biological invasions provide a unique opportunity to investigate rapid adaptation and evolution as the introduced taxa adapt to biogeographic contexts or habitats in which they have not evolved. The capacity of populations to evolve is generally thought to be constrained by their existing heritable genetic variation, which is usually associated with variation in genomic DNA nucleotide sequences. However, there is increasing acceptance that a range of mechanisms—collectively termed ‘epigenetics’ can alter gene function and affect ecologically important traits. Epigenetic processes may mediate adaptive phenotypic plasticity and provide heritable variation on a finer timescale than DNA sequence-based mutations. This review focuses on DNA methylation, a well-studied epigenetic mechanism known to be associated with biological adaptation to environmental stress. We explore the role of DNA methylation in characterising the adaptive potential of invasive species. We also provide an overview of studies focused on DNA methylation and invasive species to date, and identify knowledge gaps and potential ways to advance understanding of epigenetic-based adaptation. A summary of the literature suggests that DNA methylation could play a key role in the success of invasive species. Introduced populations with reduced genetic diversity often display increased DNA methylation variation in comparison with native populations, which could create phenotypic diversity when it is most required. Recent data show that DNA methylation could contribute to adaptation through both phenotypic plasticity and heritable variation, particularly through clonal reproduction. From a methodological perspective, recent advances in molecular techniques provide an exciting opportunity to explore the functional relevance of DNA methylation to successful biological invasions. Gaining a greater understanding of the adaptive and evolutionary processes that contribute to invasion success is critical for preventing and managing the future introduction, establishment and spread of invasive species.


Invasive species Epigenetics Adaptation Gene expression Plasticity 



This work was supported by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand (CAW1401). We would also like to thank three reviewers and the editor for their comments as they have greatly improved this review.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nicola A. Hawes
    • 1
    • 2
  • Andrew E. Fidler
    • 2
  • Louis A. Tremblay
    • 1
    • 3
  • Xavier Pochon
    • 1
    • 2
  • Brendon J. Dunphy
    • 2
    • 3
  • Kirsty F. Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Cawthron InstituteNelsonNew Zealand
  2. 2.Institute of Marine ScienceUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand
  3. 3.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

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