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Epigenetic models predict age and aging in plains zebras and other equids

By Brenda Larison, Gabriela Medeiros Pinho, Amin Haghani, Joseph Alan Zoller, Caesar Z Li, Carrie J. Finno, Colin Farrell, Christopher B. Kaelin, Gregory Barsh, Bernard Wooding, Todd R. Robeck, Dewey Maddox, Matteo Pellegrini, Steve Horvath

Posted 30 Mar 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.03.29.437607

Five of the seven extant wild species of the genus Equus are species of significant conservation concern. Effective conservation and management of such threatened wildlife populations depends on the ability to estimate demographic trends and population viability and therefore requires accurate assessment of age structure. However, reliably aging wildlife is challenging as many methods are highly invasive, inaccurate, or both. Epigenetic aging models, which estimate individual age with high accuracy based on genomic methylation patterns, are promising developments in this regard. Importantly, epigenetic aging models developed for one species can potentially predict age with high accuracy in sister taxa. Using blood and biopsy samples from known age plains zebras (Equus quagga), we developed epigenetic clocks (ECs) to predict chronological age, and epigenetic pacemaker (EPM) models to predict biological age. We tested the ability of our blood-based EC to predict ages of Grevy's zebras, Somali asses and domestic horses, from blood samples. Because our samples came from a population with a complex pedigree, we also leveraged information from a previous sequencing effort to measure the association between levels of inbreeding (F and ROH) and the age acceleration as measured by DNA methylation. The resulting models describe the trajectory of epigenetic aging in plains zebras and accurately predict the ages of plains zebras and other equids. We found moderate support for a slight acceleration of aging with increased inbreeding.

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