Background: Aggression is influenced by individual variation in temperament as well as behavioral plasticity in response to adversity. DNA methylation is stably maintained over time, but also reversible in response to specific environmental conditions, and may thus be a neuromolecular regulator of both of these processes. A previous study reported DNA methylation differences between aggressive Africanized and gentle European honey bees. We investigated whether threat-induced aggression altered DNA methylation profiles in the honey bee brain in response to a behavioral stimulus (aggression-provoking intruder bee or inert control). We sampled five minutes and two hours after stimulus exposure to examine the effect of time on epigenetic profiles of aggression. Results: There were DNA methylation differences between aggressive and control bees for individual cytosine-guanine dinucleotides (CpGs) across the genome. Eighteen individual CpG sites showed significant difference between aggressive and control bees 120 min post stimulus. For clusters of CpGs, we report four genomic regions differentially methylated between aggressive and control bees at the 5-min time point, and 50 regions differentially methylated at the120-minute time point following intruder exposure. Differential methylation occurred at genes involved in neural plasticity, chromatin remodeling and hormone signaling. Additionally, there was a significant overlap of differential methylation with previously published epigenetic differences that distinguish aggressive Africanized and gentle European honey bees, suggesting an evolutionarily conserved use of brain DNA methylation in the regulation of aggression. Lastly, we identified individually statistically suggestive CpGs that as a group were significantly associated with differentially expressed genes underlying aggressive behavior and also co-localize with binding sites of transcription factors involved in neuroplasticity or neurodevelopment. Conclusions: There were DNA methylation differences in the brain associated with response to an intruder. These differences increased in number a few hours after the initial exposure and overlap with previously reported aggression-associated genes and neurobiologically relevant transcription factor binding sites. Many DNA methylation differences that occurred in association with the expression of aggression in real time also exist between Africanized bees and European bees, suggesting an evolutionarily conserved role for epigenetic regulation in aggressive behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number216
JournalBMC genomics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 26 2018


  • Aggression
  • Brain
  • DNA methylation
  • Epigenetics
  • Evolution
  • Transcription factor binding sites

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Genetics


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