Local Adaptation in Plants


Local adaptation reflects the fact that local populations tend to have a higher mean fitness in their native environment than in other environments and in other populations introduced in their home site. Starting in the 1920s a large number of reciprocal transplant and common garden experiments, as well as studies of populations along environmental clines, have demonstrated that local adaptation is widespread in plants. One remaining challenge is to understand how populations become locally adapted and to characterise the genes involved in this process. Theoretically, local selection at single loci will promote local adaptation and gene flow will decrease it. For quantitative traits, the situation is more complex, and strong local adaptation can even be established and maintained in the presence of higher gene flow. The genetic basis of local adaptation will evolve through time, and eventually trade‐offs between alleles at a locus may occur in the different environments (antagonistic pleiotropy).

Key Concepts

  • Local adaptation is widespread in plants but its genetic basis is still poorly known.
  • Local adaptation is the property of a group of populations in a given set of environments.
  • Local adaptation depends primarily on the balance between selection and migration.
  • The genetic architecture of local adaptation, in particular the presence of trade‐offs, is likely to be variable among species as it will depend, among other things, on the time since the populations diverged or the amount of gene flow between them.

Keywords: local adaptation; spatially variable selection; migration–selection balance; plants; reciprocal transplants; provenance tests; breeding; quantitative traits

Figure 1. Birch trees that originated from different latitudes in Sweden and were planted south of Uppsala in Central Sweden. In the early fall, trees from northern latitudes, on the left, stop growing and shed their leaves, while trees from the south, on the right, still bear green leaves. (Photo courtesy of Jon Ågren.)
Figure 2. Mean fitness of three populations over three environmental sites. Populations 1, 2 and 3 originate from sites 1, 2 and 3, respectively. Each population was grown in its home site as well as in the two other populations' home sites. Local adaptation is defined as the difference between fitness of populations in their home sites and fitness of populations away from their home sites. In (a), the local population always has a higher fitness than the two others in its native environment. Then we say that the populations are locally adapted. In contrast, in (b) population 1 has the highest fitness over the three sites. The populations are not locally adapted.
Figure 3. Genetic basis of local adaptation. (a) Fitness has different optima in Environment 1 and Environment 2. (b, c) Under each graph, we have represented the genome and the location of the loci contributing to fitness. The horizontal line represents a chromosome. The vertical bars are the loci contributing to fitness, and their length is proportional to the effect of a given locus on fitness. The effect can be positive (above the vertical line) or negative (below the vertical line). In case (b), local adaptation is due to a few loci with large effects. Some loci are common to both environments and others are specific to a given environment. In contrast, in case (c), local adaptation is due to coordinated changes at a large number of loci, each with a small effect. Theoretical work suggests that the latter is more likely if there is gene flow between the two environments.


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Further Reading

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Yeaman S (2013) Genomic rearrangements and the evolution of clusters of locally adaptive loci. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110: E1743–E1751.

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Lascoux, Martin, Glémin, Sylvain, and Savolainen, Outi(Feb 2016) Local Adaptation in Plants. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0025270]