The Tibetan poplar (Populus szechuanica var. tibetica Schneid), which is distributed at altitudes of 2,000-4,500 m above sea level, is an ecologically important species of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and adjacent areas. However, the genetic adaptations responsible for its ability to cope with the harsh environment remain unknown.
In this study, a total of 24 expressed sequence tag microsatellite (EST-SSR) markers were used to evaluate the genetic diversity and population structure of Tibetan poplars along an altitude gradient. The 172 individuals were of genotypes from low-, medium- and high-altitude populations, and 126 alleles were identified. The expected heterozygosity (HE) value ranged from 0.475 to 0.488 with the highest value found in low-altitude populations and the lowest in high-altitude populations. Genetic variation was low among populations, indicating a limited influence of altitude on microsatellite variation. Low genetic differentiation and high levels of gene flow were detected both between and within the populations along the altitude gradient. An analysis of molecular variance (AMOVA) showed that 6.38% of the total molecular variance was attributed to diversity between populations, while 93.62% variance was associated with differences within populations. There was no clear correlation between genetic variation and altitude, and a Mantel test between genetic distance and altitude resulted in a coefficient of association of r = 0.001, indicating virtually no correlation.
Microsatellite genotyping results showing genetic diversity and low differentiation suggest that extensive gene flow may have counteracted local adaptations imposed by differences in altitude. The genetic analyses carried out in this study provide new insight for conservation and optimization of future arboriculture.