Epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation variation, can generate heritable phenotypic variation independent of the underlying genetic code. However, epigenetic variation in natural plant populations is poorly documented and little understood. Here, we test whether northward range expansion of obligate apomicts of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is associated with DNA methylation variation. We characterized and compared patterns of genetic and DNA methylation variation in greenhouse-reared offspring of T. officinale that were collected along a latitudinal transect of northward range expansion in Europe. Genetic AFLP and epigenetic MS-AFLP markers revealed high levels of local diversity and modest but significant heritable differentiation between sampling locations and between the southern, central and northern regions of the transect. Patterns of genetic and epigenetic variation were significantly correlated, reflecting the genetic control over epigenetic variation and/or the accumulation of lineage-specific spontaneous epimutations, which may be selectively neutral. In addition, we identified a small component of DNA methylation differentiation along the transect that is independent of genetic variation. This epigenetic differentiation might reflect environment-specific induction or, in case the DNA methylation variation affects relevant traits and fitness, selection of heritable DNA methylation variants. Such generated epigenetic variants might contribute to the adaptive capacity of individual asexual lineages under changing environments. Our results highlight the potential of heritable DNA methylation variation to contribute to population differentiation along ecological gradients. Further studies are needed using higher resolution methods to understand the functional significance of such natural occurring epigenetic differentiation.
|Date made available||16 Jul 2015|