Epigenetic phenomena have not yet been reported in archaea, which are presumed to use a classical genetic process of heritability. Here, analysis of independent lineages of Sulfolobus solfataricus evolved for enhanced fitness implicated a non-Mendelian basis for trait inheritance. The evolved strains, called super acid-resistant Crenarchaeota (SARC), acquired traits of extreme acid resistance and genome stability relative to their wild-type parental lines. Acid resistance was heritable because it was retained regardless of extensive passage without selection. Despite the hereditary pattern, in one strain, it was impossible for these SARC traits to result from mutation because its resequenced genome had no mutation. All strains also had conserved, heritable transcriptomes implicated in acid resistance. In addition, they had improved genome stability with absent or greatly decreased mutation and transposition relative to a passaged control. A mechanism that would confer these traits without DNA sequence alteration could involve posttranslationally modified archaeal chromatin proteins. To test this idea, homologous recombination with isogenic DNA was used to perturb native chromatin structure. Recombination at up-regulated loci from the heritable SARC transcriptome reduced acid resistance and gene expression in the majority of recombinants. In contrast, recombination at a control locus that was not part of the heritable transcriptome changed neither acid resistance nor gene expression. Variation in the amount of phenotypic and expression changes across individuals was consistent with Rad54-dependent chromatin remodeling that dictated crossover location and branch migration. These data support an epigenetic model implicating chromatin structure as a contributor to heritable traits.
Journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America