Vitamins, stress and growth: the availability of antioxidants in early life influences the expression of cryptic genetic variation

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Environmental inputs during early development can shape the expression of phenotypes, which has long-lasting consequences in physiology and life history of an organism. Here, we study whether experimentally manipulated availability of dietary antioxidants, vitamins C and E, influences the expression of genetic variance for antioxidant defence, endocrine signal and body mass in yellow-legged gull chicks using quantitative genetic models based on full siblings. Our experimental study in a natural population reveals that the expression of genetic variance in total antioxidant capacity in plasma increased in chicks supplemented with vitamins C and E despite the negligible effects on the average phenotype. This suggests that individuals differ in their ability to capture and transport dietary antioxidants or to respond to these extra resources, and importantly, this ability has a genetic basis. Corticosterone level in plasma and body mass were negatively correlated at the phenotypic level. Significant genetic variance of corticosterone level appeared only in control chicks nonsupplemented with vitamins, suggesting that the genetic variation of endocrine system, which transmits environmental cues to adaptively control chick development, appeared in stressful conditions (i.e. poor antioxidant availability). Therefore, environmental inputs may shape evolutionary trajectories of antioxidant capacity and endocrine system by affecting the expression of cryptic genetic variation.

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