Deciphering the genetic structure of Arabidopsis thaliana diversity across its geographic range provides the bases for elucidating the demographic history of this model plant. Despite the unique A. thaliana genomic resources currently available, its history in North Africa, the extreme southern limit in the biodiversity hotspot of the Mediterranean Basin, remains virtually unknown.
To approach A. thaliana evolutionary history in North Africa, we have analysed the genetic diversity and structure of 151 individuals collected from 20 populations distributed across Morocco. Genotyping of 249 genome-wide SNPs indicated that Morocco contains substantially lower diversity than most analyzed world regions. However, IBD, STRUCTURE and PCA clustering analyses showed that genetic variation is strongly geographically structured. We also determined the genetic relationships between Morocco and the closest European region, the Iberian Peninsula, by analyses of 201 populations from both regions genotyped with the same SNPs. These analyses detected four genetic groups, but all Moroccan accessions belonged to a common Iberian/Moroccan cluster that appeared highly differentiated from the remaining groups. Thus, we identified a genetic lineage with an isolated demographic history in the south-western Mediterranean region. The existence of this lineage was further supported by the study of several flowering genes and traits, which also found Moroccan accessions similar to the same Iberian group. Nevertheless, genetic diversity for neutral SNPs and flowering genes was higher in Moroccan than in Iberian populations of this lineage. Furthermore, we analyzed the genetic relationships between Morocco and other world regions by joint analyses of a worldwide collection of 337 accessions, which detected an additional weak relationship between North Africa and Asia.
The patterns of genetic diversity and structure of A. thaliana in Morocco show that North Africa is part of the species native range and support the occurrence of a glacial refugium in the Atlas Mountains. In addition, the identification of a genetic lineage specific of Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula indicates that the Strait of Gibraltar has been an A. thaliana migration route between Europe and Africa. Finally, the genetic relationship between Morocco and Asia suggests another migration route connecting north-western Africa and Asia.