Apples and Genetic Bottlenecks

This is the eleventh in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Genetic Diversity in Malus x domestica (Rosaceae) through Time in Response to Domestication by Briana L. Gross, Adam D. Henk, Christopher M. Richards, Gannara Fazio, and Gayle M. Volk

Domestication is a selection process. Plants with desirable traits are selected (consciously or unconsciously) and removed from the larger population to be grown out and selected from again. Over time, this series of selections results in a cultivated variety that differs substantially from the larger, origin population. This process, while yielding crop varieties that feed a growing population of humans, also results in a series of genetic bottlenecks, meaning they experience a reduction in genetic variation compared to their wild relatives.

There are two points were bottlenecks occur in the domestication process. The first takes place “during the initial domestication event as a subset of the wild population is brought into a cultivated setting.” This is called a “domestication bottleneck.” The second, known as an “improvement bottleneck,” happens when “modern, elite cultivars are selected from the broad variety of landraces [locally adapted varieties]” that were developed during the original domestication event. This stepwise reduction in genetic diversity “limits the options of plant breeders, even as they face the need to increase crop productivity and sustainability” in today’s changing climate.

Most of what we know about genetic bottlenecks during domestication is derived from studies of annual fruit and grain crops. However, “non-grain crops, and perennials in particular, respond to domestication or are domesticated in ways that are fundamentally different.” For this reason, the authors investigated genetic bottlenecks in apple (Malus x domestica), “one of the most widely distributed perennial fruit crops.” They then compared what they learned to other published studies of annual and perennial fruit crops in order to gain more insight into how genetic diversity is affected in these types of crops during domestication.

The common apple was domesticated in central Asia around 4,000 years ago and is a hybrid of at least three species: Malus sieversii, Malus orientalis, and Malus sylvestris. Today, apples are grown throughout the world, and there are more than 7,500 known cultivars with new cultivars being released regularly. Despite this impressive diversity, just fifteen cultivars make up 90% of apple production in the U.S. The authors of this study analyzed DNA from 11 of the 15 major cultivars as well as DNA from the three main wild progenitor species.

Malus x domestica 'Gala' - One of the top 15 apple varieties produced in the U.S. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Malus x domestica ‘Gala’ – One of the top 15 apple varieties produced in the U.S. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Perennial fruit crops typically experience “mild genetic bottlenecks” compared to annual fruit crops, and the authors confirmed this to be the case with domesticated apples, finding “no significant reduction in genetic diversity through time across the last eight centuries.” Because apple cultivars are maintained by clonal propagation, they can often be traced back to when they were originally developed, making bottlenecks easier to observe. The authors found that “the most recently developed or described cultivars of apples show little to no reduction in genetic diversity compared with the most ancient cultivars.” Cultivars developed since the 1950’s show increased diversity, which may partly be the result of plant breeders introducing genes from another wild species, Malus floribunda.

After a review of the literature, the authors found that apples have retained the highest amount of genetic diversity through the domestication process compared to other fruits, both annual and perennial. More studies are needed in order to confirm the accuracy and extent of these findings; however, the unique story of apple domestication may help explain why it has been “particularly prone to retaining diversity through time.” First, it was widely distributed across Eurasia during its early days of domestication. Second, it experienced “admixture with cultivars” as it expanded its range. For example, after being introduced to North America, it became naturalized, resulting in gene flow occurring between naturalized individuals and cultivated varieties. Offspring of these populations (“chance seedlings”), were then selected, cloned, and became named cultivars.

Despite the mild genetic bottleneck observed in apples, the authors warned that a “dependence on a small number of cultivars” for the majority of U.S. apple production may be resulting in some loss of genetic variation. Relying on so few cultivars may leave apple production vulnerable to pests, diseases, and climate change. “Careful management” is advised as “the continued genetic resilience of the crop is dependent on the genetic diversity of cultivars that are present in living and cryopreserved collections around the world.”

Malus sylvestris (common crabapple) - One of the three main players involved in the apple domestication story (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Blossoms of Malus sylvestris (common crabapple) – One of three main species involved in the history of apple domestication (photo credit: www.eol.org)

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3 thoughts on “Apples and Genetic Bottlenecks

  1. Pingback: Speaking of Food: A Recap | awkward botany

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