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Molecular adaptation in flowering and symbiotic recognition pathways: insights from patterns of polymorphism in the legume Medicago truncatula

Stéphane De Mita1, Nathalie Chantret2, Karine Loridon2, Joëlle Ronfort2 and Thomas Bataillon34*

Author Affiliations

1 UMR Diversité, Adaptation et Développement des Plantes Cultivées (DIADE), Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), Montpellier, France

2 UMR Amélioration Génétique et Adaptation des Plantes Méditerranéennes et Tropicales (AGAP), Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), Montpellier, France

3 Bioinformatics Research Center, Aarhus University, Denmark

4 Institute of Biology, Aarhus University, Denmark

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:229  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-229

Published: 1 August 2011



We studied patterns of molecular adaptation in the wild Mediterranean legume Medicago truncatula. We focused on two phenotypic traits that are not functionally linked: flowering time and perception of symbiotic microbes. Phenology is an important fitness component, especially for annual plants, and many instances of molecular adaptation have been reported for genes involved in flowering pathways. While perception of symbiotic microbes is also integral to adaptation in many plant species, very few reports of molecular adaptation exist for symbiotic genes. Here we used data from 57 individuals and 53 gene fragments to quantify the overall strength of both positive and purifying selection in M. truncatula and asked if footprints of positive selection can be detected at key genes of rhizobia recognition pathways.


We examined nucleotide variation among 57 accessions from natural populations in 53 gene fragments: 5 genes involved in nitrogen-fixing bacteria recognition, 11 genes involved in flowering, and 37 genes used as control loci. We detected 1757 polymorphic sites yielding an average nucleotide diversity (pi) of 0.003 per site. Non-synonymous variation is under sizable purifying selection with 90% of amino-acid changing mutations being strongly selected against. Accessions were structured in two groups consistent with geographical origins. Each of these two groups harboured an excess of rare alleles, relative to expectations of a constant-sized population, suggesting recent population expansion. Using coalescent simulations and an approximate Bayesian computation framework we detected several instances of genes departing from selective neutrality within each group and showed that the polymorphism of two nodulation and four flowering genes has probably been shaped by recent positive selection.


We quantify the intensity of purifying selection in the M. truncatula genome and show that putative footprints of natural selection can be detected at different time scales in both flowering and symbiotic pathways.