Evolutionary history of the canary grasses (Phalaris, Poaceae)

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Virginia Tech

Canary grasses (Phalaris, Poaceae) include 21 species widely distributed throughout temperate and subtropical regions of the world with centers of diversity in the Mediterranean Basin and western North America. The genus contains annual/perennial, endemic/cosmopolitan, wild, and invasive species with basic numbers of x=6 (diploid) and x=7 (diploid/tetraploid/hexaploid). The latter display vastly greater speciation and geographic distribution. These attributes make Phalaris an ideal platform to study species diversification, dispersal, historic hybridization, polyploidy events, and chromosome evolution in the grasses.

This body of research presents the first molecular phylogenetic and phylogeographic reconstruction of the genus based on the nuclear ITS and plastid trnT-F DNA regions allowing species relationships and the importance of polyploidy in speciation to be assessed. Divergence dates for the genus were determined using Bayesian methods (BEAST, version 1.6.2) and historic patterns of dispersal were analyzed with RASP (version 2.1b). Self-incompatibility and the feasibility of hybridization between major groups within the genus were studied with a series of greenhouse experiments. Acetocarmine and fluorescent staining techniques were used to study the morphology of the chromosomes in a phylogenetic context and the nuclear DNA content (C values) was quantified using flow cytometry.

Four major clades were revealed in the genus with cytological and geographic affinities leading to the establishment of two subgenera and four sections in the first comprehensive infrageneric treatment of Phalaris. Divergence dating revealed a Miocene emergence (20.6-8.4 MYA) for the genus which is concurrent with studies of other genera in the Aveneae tribe. The hypothesis stating that Phalaris originated in the Mediterranean Basin and dispersed to the New World via a western route leading to a secondary center of diversification in western North America was supported by phylogeographic and cytological analyses. An empirical study comparing the weight, length, and width of the florets by morphological type and cytotype revealed significant differences that support a dispersal advantage among the New World and Arundinacea species. The x=6 species displayed greater intraspecific C value variation, higher DNA content per haploid chromosome set, and a distinct karyotype compared with the x=7 species indicating a complex history of chromosome evolution.

Phalaris, polyploidy, phylogenetics, phylogeography, chromosome evolution