Within the primate lineage, skeletal traits that contribute to inter-specific anatomical variation and enable varied niche occupations and forms of locomotion are often described as the result of environmental adaptations. However, skeletal phenotypes are more accurately defined as complex traits, and environmental, genetic, and epigenetic mechanisms, such as DNA methylation which regulates gene expression, all contribute to these phenotypes. Nevertheless, skeletal complexity in relation to epigenetic variation has not been assessed across the primate order. In order to gain a complete understanding of the evolution of skeletal phenotypes across primates, it is necessary to study skeletal epigenetics in primates. This study attempts to fill this gap by identifying intra- and inter-specific variation in primate skeletal tissue methylation in order to test whether specific features of skeletal form are related to specific variations in methylation. Specifically, methylation arrays and gene-specific methylation sequencing are used to identify DNA methylation patterns in femoral trabecular bone and cartilage of several nonhuman primate species. Samples include baboons (Papio spp.), macaques (Macaca mulatta), vervets (Chlorocebus aethiops), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), and marmosets (Callithrix jacchus), and the efficiencies of these methods are validated in each taxon. Within one nonhuman primate species (baboons), intra-specific variations in methylation patterns are identified across a range of comparative levels, including skeletal tissue differences (bone vs. cartilage), age cohort differences (adults vs. juveniles), and skeletal disease state differences (osteoarthritic vs. healthy), and some of the identified patterns are evolutionarily conserved with those known in humans. Additionally, in all nonhuman primate species, intra-specific methylation variation in association with nonpathological femur morphologies is assessed. Lastly, inter-specific changes in methylation are evaluated among all nonhuman primate taxa and used to provide a phylogenetic framework for methylation changes previously identified in the hominin lineage. Overall, findings from this work reveal how skeletal DNA methylation patterns vary within and among primate species and relate to skeletal phenotypes, and together they inform our understanding of epigenetic regulation and complex skeletal trait evolution in primates.
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