Nongenetic inheritance and multigenerational plasticity in the nematode C. elegans.
A rapidly growing body of literature in several organisms suggests that environmentally-induced adaptive changes in phenotype can be transmitted across multiple generations. Although within-generation plasticity has been well documented, multigenerational plasticity represents a significant departure from conventional evolutionary thought. Studies of C. elegans have been particularly influential because this species exhibits extensive phenotypic plasticity, it is often essentially isogenic, and it has well-documented molecular and cellular mechanisms through which nongenetic inheritance occurs. However, while experimentalists are eager to claim that nongenetic modes of inheritance characterized in this and other model systems enhance fitness, many biologists remain skeptical given the extraordinary nature of this claim. We establish three criteria to evaluate how compelling the evidence for adaptive multigenerational plasticity is, and we use these criteria to critically examine putative cases of it in C. elegans. We conclude by suggesting potentially fruitful avenues for future research.
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