Adaptation of an invasive grass to agriculture: ecological and genomic evidence

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Virginia Tech

Species vary phenotypically and genetically across their environmental range limits, and this variation can influence ecological processes. Ecologically meaningful intraspecific variation might be particularly important in the context of agricultural weeds and exotic invaders, because intraspecific variation in these species might allow them to rapidly adapt to their unusually dynamic and variable environments. In a greenhouse study, we explored intraspecific variation in the size, rhizome production, and competitive ability of the global invader, Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), representing populations from agricultural and non-agricultural habitats across its introduced North American range. We also used these populations to explore the relationship between phenotypic variation and genomic endoreduplication responses to the common stresses herbicides, competition, and clipping. Endoreduplication occurs when plants increase their genome size by increasing their nuclear chromosome number, with some evidence showing correlations with stress response. We found that Johnsongrass plants from agricultural habitats were larger than plants from non-agricultural habitats, but there was no difference between habitats in either rhizome production or competitive ability. Two of the five herbicides we tested, primisulfuron and imazethapyr, had the strongest suppressive effects on Johnsongrass, and also stimulated the greatest rates of endoreduplication. Furthermore, agricultural populations showed higher levels of endoreduplication. We found no overall effect of competition on endoreduplication, although endoreduplication was higher for non-agricultural populations than agricultural populations. When competing with corn, but not with conspecifics, Johnsongrass roots increased endoreduplication by 13%. Clipping induced substantial endoreduplication, but there was no difference between agricultural and non-agricultural populations. Our results suggest that endoreduplication may play a role in some, but not all, stress responses in Johnsongrass. Furthermore, our results indicate that Johnsongrass has adapted in some phenotypic and genomic ways to agricultural habitats in North America. Such adaptation may play a role in this species' success as both an agricultural weed and an exotic invader.

adaptation, endopolyploidy, intraspecific-diversity, invasive species, Sorghum halepense, stress-tolerance