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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The cost of longevity: loss of sexual function in natural clones of Populus tremuloides Ally, Dilara


Most clonal plants exhibit a modular structure at multiple levels. At the level of the organs, they are characterized by functional modules, such as, internodes, leaves, branches. At the level of the genetic individual (clone or genet), they possess independent evolutionary and physiological units (ramets). These evolutionary units arise through the widespread phenomenon of clonal reproduction, achieved in a variety of ways including rhizomes, stolons, bulbils, or lateral roots. The focus of this study was Populus tremuloides, trembling aspen, a dioecious tree that reproduces sexually by seed and asexually through lateral roots. Local forest patches in western populations of Populus tremuloides consisted largely of multiple genotypes. Multi-clonal patches were dominated by a single genotype, and in one population (Riske Creek) we found several patches (five out of 17) consisting of a single genotype. A second consequence of modularity is that during the repeated cycle of ramet birth, development and death, somatic mutations have the opportunity to occur. Eventually, the clone becomes a mosaic of mutant and non-mutant cell lineages. We found that neutral somatic mutations accumulated across 14 microsatellite loci at a rate of between 10^-6 and 10^-5 per locus per year. We suggest that neutral genetic divergence, under a star phylogeny model of clonal growth, is an alternative way to estimate clone age. Previous estimates of clone age couple the mean growth rate per year of shoots with the area covered by the clone. This assumes a positive linear relationship between clone age and clone size. We found, however, no repeatable pattern across our populations in terms of the relationship of either shape or size to the number of somatic changes. A final consequence of modularity is that during clonal growth, natural selection is relaxed for traits involving sexual function. This means that mutations deleterious to sexual function can accumulate, reducing the overall sexual fitness of a clone. We coupled neutral genetic divergence within clones with pollen fitness data to infer the rate and effect of mildly deleterious mutations. Mutations reduced relative sexual fitness in clonal aspen populations by about 0.12x10^-3 to 1.01x10^-3 per year. Furthermore, the decline in sexual function with clone age is evidence that clonal organisms are vulnerable to the effects of senescence.

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