Cryptic introgression into the kidney saxifrage (Saxifraga hirsuta) from its more abundant sympatric congener Saxifraga spathularis, and the potential risk of genetic assimilation

Gemma Beatty, Laura Barker, Pei-Pei Chen, Colin T. Kelleher, Jim Provan

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Background and Aims Although hybridization can play a positive role in plant evolution, it has been shown that excessive unidirectional hybridization can result in replacement of a species' gene pool, and even the extinction of rare species via genetic assimilation. This study examines levels of introgression between the common Saxifraga spathularis and its rarer congener S. hirsuta, which have been observed to hybridize in the wild where they occur sympatrically.

Methods Seven species-specific single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) were analysed in 1025 plants representing both species and their hybrid, S. x polita, from 29 sites across their ranges in Ireland. In addition, species distribution modelling was carried out to determine whether the relative abundance of the two parental species is likely to change under future climate scenarios.

Key Results Saxifraga spathularis individuals tended to be genetically pure, exhibiting little or no introgression from S. hirsuta, but significant levels of introgression of S. spathularis alleles into S. hirsuta were observed, indicating that populations exhibiting S. hirsuta morphology are more like a hybrid swarm, consisting of backcrosses and F(2)s. Populations of the hybrid, S. x polita, were generally comprised of F(1)s or F(2)s, with some evidence of backcrossing. Species distribution modelling under projected future climate scenarios indicated an increase in suitable habitats for both parental species.

Conclusions Levels of introgression observed in this study in both S. spathularis and S. hirsuta would appear to be correlated with the relative abundance of the species. Significant introgression of S. spathularis alleles was detected in the majority of the S. hirsuta populations analysed and, consequently, ongoing introgression would appear to represent a threat to the genetic integrity of S. hirsuta, particularly in areas where the species exists sympatrically with its congener and where it is greatly outnumbered.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)179-186
Number of pages8
JournalAnnals of Botany
Issue number2
Early online date02 Dec 2014
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2015


  • Genetic assimilation
  • hybridization
  • introgression
  • kidney saxifrage
  • population genetics
  • Saxifraga hirsuta
  • Saxifraga spathularis
  • single nucleotide polymorphisms
  • species distribution modelling
  • RARE


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