ITS Polymorphisms Shed Light on Hybrid Evolution in Apomictic Plants: A Case Study on the <i>Ranunculus auricomus</i> Complex


<div><p>The reconstruction of reticulate evolutionary histories in plants is still a major methodological challenge. Sequences of the ITS nrDNA are a popular marker to analyze hybrid relationships, but variation of this multicopy spacer region is affected by concerted evolution, high intraindividual polymorphism, and shifts in mode of reproduction. The relevance of changes in secondary structure is still under dispute. We aim to shed light on the extent of polymorphism within and between sexual species and their putative natural as well as synthetic hybrid derivatives in the <i>Ranunculus auricomus</i> complex to test morphology-based hypotheses of hybrid origin and parentage of taxa. We employed direct sequencing of ITS nrDNA from 68 individuals representing three sexuals, their synthetic hybrids and one sympatric natural apomict, as well as cloning of ITS copies in four representative individuals, RNA secondary structure analysis, and landmark geometric morphometric analysis on leaves. Phylogenetic network analyses indicate additivity of parental ITS variants in both synthetic and natural hybrids. The triploid synthetic hybrids are genetically much closer to their maternal progenitors, probably due to ploidy dosage effects, although exhibiting a paternal-like leaf morphology. The natural hybrids are genetically and morphologically closer to the putative paternal progenitor species. Secondary structures of ITS1-5.8S-ITS2 were rather conserved in all taxa. The observed similarities in ITS polymorphisms suggest that the natural apomict <i>R. variabilis</i> is an ancient hybrid of the diploid sexual species <i>R. notabilis</i> and the sexual species <i>R. cassubicifolius</i>. The additivity pattern shared by <i>R. variabilis</i> and the synthetic hybrids supports an evolutionary and biogeographical scenario that <i>R. variabilis</i> originated from ancient hybridization. Concerted evolution of ITS copies in <i>R. variabilis</i> is incomplete, probably due to a shift to asexual reproduction. Under the condition of comprehensive inter- and intraspecific sampling, ITS polymorphisms are powerful for elucidating reticulate evolutionary histories.</p></div

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