Influence of a climatic gradient on genetic exchange between two oak species

Dylan O Burge, V Thomas Parker, Margaret Mulligan, Victoria L Sork
American Journal of Botany 2019, 106 (6): 864-878

PREMISE: In plant groups with limited intrinsic barriers to gene flow, it is thought that environmental conditions can modulate interspecific genetic exchange. Oaks are known for limited barriers to gene flow among closely related species. Here, we use Quercus as a living laboratory in which to pursue a fundamental question in plant evolution: Do environmental gradients restrict or promote genetic exchange between species?

METHODS: We focused on two North American oaks, the rare Quercus dumosa and the widespread Q. berberidifolia. We sampled intensively along a contact zone in California, USA. We sequenced restriction site-associated DNA markers and measured vegetative phenotype. We tested for genetic exchange, the association with climate, and the effect on phenotype.

RESULTS: There is evidence for genetic exchange between the species. Admixed plants are found in areas of intermediate climate, while less admixed plants are found at the extremes of the climatic gradient. Genetic and phenotypic patterns are out of phase in the contact zone; some plants display the phenotype of one species but are genetically associated with another.

CONCLUSIONS: Our results support the hypothesis that a strong climatic gradient can promote genetic exchange between species. The overall weak correlation between genotype and phenotype in the contact zone between the species suggests that genetic exchange can lead to the breakdown of trait combinations used to define species. This incongruency predicts ongoing problems for conservation of Q. dumosa, with implications for conservation of other oaks.

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