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Open Access Research article

Evidence for hybridization and introgression within a species-rich oak (Quercus spp.) community

Alexandru L Curtu12*, Oliver Gailing1 and Reiner Finkeldey1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Forest Genetics and Forest Tree Breeding, Büsgen-Institute Georg – August University Göttingen, Büsgenweg 2, Göttingen, , 37077, Germany

2 Department of Forest Sciences, Transilvania University Brasov, Sirul Beethoven 1, Brasov, 500123, Romania

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:218  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-218

Published: 10 November 2007

Abstract

Background

Analysis of interspecific gene flow is crucial for the understanding of speciation processes and maintenance of species integrity. Oaks (genus Quercus, Fagaceae) are among the model species for the study of hybridization. Natural co-occurrence of four closely related oak species is a very rare case in the temperate forests of Europe. We used both morphological characters and genetic markers to characterize hybridization in a natural community situated in west-central Romania and which consists of Quercus robur, Q. petraea, Q. pubescens, and Q. frainetto, respectively.

Results

On the basis of pubescence and leaf morphological characters ~94% of the sampled individuals were assigned to pure species. Only 16 (~6%) individual trees exhibited intermediate morphologies or a combination of characters of different species. Four chloroplast DNA haplotypes were identified in the study area. The distribution of haplotypes within the white oak complex showed substantial differences among species. However, the most common haplotypes were present in all four species. Furthermore, based on a set of 7 isozyme and 6 microsatellite markers and using a Bayesian admixture analysis without any a priori information on morphology we found that four genetic clusters best fit the data. There was a very good correspondence of each species with one of the inferred genetic clusters. The estimated introgression level varied markedly between pairs of species ranging from 1.7% between Q. robur and Q. frainetto to 16.2% between Q. pubescens and Q. frainetto. Only nine individuals (3.4%) appeared to be first-generation hybrids.

Conclusion

Our data indicate that natural hybridization has occurred at relatively low rates. The different levels of gene flow among species might be explained by differences in flowering time and spatial position within the stand. In addition, a partial congruence between phenotypically and genetically intermediate individuals was found, suggesting that intermediate appearance does not necessarily mean hybridization. However, it appears that natural hybridization did not seriously affect the species identity in this area of sympatry.