RNAi pathways contribute to developmental history-dependent phenotypic plasticity in C. elegans
Early environmental experiences profoundly influence adult phenotypes through complex mechanisms that are poorly understood. We previously showed that adult Caenorhabditis elegans that transiently passed through the stress-induced dauer larval stage (post-dauer adults) exhibit significant changes in gene expression profiles, chromatin states, and life history traits when compared with adults that bypassed the dauer stage (control adults). These wild-type, isogenic animals of equivalent developmental stages exhibit different signatures of molecular marks that reflect their distinct developmental trajectories. To gain insight into the mechanisms that contribute to these developmental history-dependent phenotypes, we profiled small RNAs from post-dauer and control adults by deep sequencing. RNA interference (RNAi) pathways are known to regulate genome-wide gene expression both at the chromatin and post-transcriptional level. By quantifying changes in endogenous small interfering RNA (endo-siRNA) levels in post-dauer as compared with control animals, our analyses identified a subset of genes that are likely targets of developmental history-dependent reprogramming through a complex RNAi-mediated mechanism. Mutations in specific endo-siRNA pathways affect expected gene expression and chromatin state changes for a subset of genes in post-dauer animals, as well as disrupt their increased brood size phenotype. We also find that both chromatin state and endo-siRNA distribution in dauers are unique, and suggest that remodeling in dauers provides a template for the subsequent establishment of adult post-dauer profiles. Our results indicate a role for endo-siRNA pathways as a contributing mechanism to early experience-dependent phenotypic plasticity in adults, and describe how developmental history can program adult physiology and behavior via epigenetic mechanisms.