How do threatened plant species with low genetic diversity respond to environmental stress? Insights from comparative conservation epigenomics and phenotypic plasticity

Brigette R. Williams, Allison J. Miller, Christine E. Edwards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations

Abstract

Many threatened plants have low genetic diversity, which may reduce their capacity for genetically based adaptation, increasing their extinction risk. Non-genetic variation (e.g. epigenomic modifications such as DNA methylation) and plasticity may facilitate the persistence of threatened plants, yet are rarely incorporated into conservation assessments. We present a case study investigating variation and plasticity in DNA methylation and phenotypic traits in four genetically depauperate species of Leavenworthia (Brassicaceae), including one widespread species and one asexual, threatened species. We grew individuals from several maternal lines and populations per species in contrasting watering treatments, measured phenotypic traits and analysed DNA methylation using whole-genome bisulphite sequencing. We addressed four questions: (1) How do patterns of DNA methylation differ within and among species? (2) Within species, how do phenotypic traits and patterns of DNA methylation vary in response to drought? (3) Does variation in DNA methylation correspond to phenotypic variation? (4) What are the implications for conservation? We found that taxa were epigenomically distinct and that each species exhibited variation in DNA methylation among populations that could be relevant for conservation. Within species, the DNA methylation response to environmental stress corresponded to its phenotypic response. Species differed in their DNA methylation and phenotypic responses to environmental stress, with the extent of plasticity possibly related to species geographic range size. We also found phenotypic and DNA methylation variation in the asexual, threatened species that may be relevant for conservation. Our results suggest that variation in DNA methylation may promote the persistence of genetically depauperate threatened plants, highlighting its potential as a novel conservation target to reduce extinction risk.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMolecular Ecology Resources
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

Keywords

  • DNA methylation
  • epigenomics
  • Leavenworthia
  • phenotypic plasticity
  • plant conservation
  • quantitative genetics

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