In order to investigate the rate and limits of the response to selection from highly inbred genetic material and evaluate the respective contribution of standing variation and new mutations, we conducted a divergent selection experiment from maize inbred lines in open-field conditions during 7 years. Two maize commercial seed lots considered as inbred lines, F252 and MBS847, constituted two biological replicates of the experiment. In each replicate, we derived an Early and a Late population by selecting and selfing the earliest and the latest individuals, respectively, to produce the next generation.
All populations, except the Early MBS847, responded to selection despite a short number of generations and a small effective population size. Part of the response can be attributed to standing genetic variation in the initial seed lot. Indeed, we identified one polymorphism initially segregating in the F252 seed lot at a candidate locus for flowering time, which explained 35% of the trait variation within the Late F252 population. However, the model that best explained our data takes into account both residual polymorphism in the initial seed lots and a constant input of heritable genetic variation by new (epi)mutations. Under this model, values of mutational heritability range from 0.013 to 0.025, and stand as an upper bound compare to what is reported in other species.
Our study reports a long-term divergent selection experiment for a complex trait, flowering time, conducted on maize in open-field conditions. Starting from a highly inbred material, we created within a few generations populations that strikingly differ from the initial seed lot for flowering time while preserving most of the phenotypic characteristics of the initial inbred. Such material is unique for studying the dynamics of the response to selection and its determinants. In addition to the fixation of a standing beneficial mutation associated with a large phenotypic effect, a constant input of genetic variance by new mutations has likely contributed to the response. We discuss our results in the context of the evolution and mutational dynamics of populations characterized by a small effective population size.