Open Access Research article

Gone with the currents: lack of genetic differentiation at the circum-continental scale in the Antarctic krill Euphausia superba

Erica Bortolotto1, Ann Bucklin2, Massimo Mezzavilla1, Lorenzo Zane1* and Tomaso Patarnello3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Padova, via U. Bassi 58B -35121 Padova, Italy

2 Department of Marine Sciences, University of Connecticut, Groton CT 06340 USA

3 Department of Public Health, Comparative Pathology and Veterinary Hygiene, University of Padova, Viale dell'Università 16, 35020 Legnaro (PD), Italy

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BMC Genetics 2011, 12:32  doi:10.1186/1471-2156-12-32

Published: 12 April 2011



Southern Ocean fauna represent a significant amount of global biodiversity, whose origin may be linked to glacial cycles determining local extinction/eradication with ice advance, survival of refugee populations and post-glacial re-colonization. This pattern implies high potential for differentiation in benthic shelf species with limited dispersal, yet consequences for pelagic organisms are less clear. The present study investigates levels of genetic variation and population structure of the Antarctic krill Euphausia superba using mitochondrial DNA and EST-linked microsatellite markers for an unprecedentedly comprehensive sampling of its populations over a circum-Antarctic range.


MtDNA (ND1) sequences and EST-linked microsatellite markers indicated no clear sign of genetic structure among populations over large geographic scales, despite considerable power to detect differences inferred from forward-time simulations. Based on ND1, few instances of genetic heterogeneity, not significant after correction for multiple tests, were detected between geographic or temporal samples. Neutrality tests and mismatch distribution based on mtDNA sequences revealed strong evidence of past population expansion. Significant positive values of the parameter g (a measure of population growth) were obtained from microsatellite markers using a coalescent-based genealogical method and suggested a recent start (60 000 - 40 000 years ago) for the expansion.


The results provide evidence of lack of genetic heterogeneity of Antarctic krill at large geographic scales and unequivocal support for recent population expansion. Lack of genetic structuring likely reflects the tight link between krill and circum-Antarctic ocean currents and is consistent with the hypothesis that differentiation processes in Antarctic species are largely influenced by dispersal potential, whereas small-scale spatial and temporal differentiation might be due to local conditions leading to genetic patchiness. The signal of recent population growth suggests differential impact of glacial cycles on pelagic Antarctic species, which experienced population expansion during glaciations with increased available habitat, versus sedentary benthic shelf species.

EST-linked microsatellites provide new perspectives to complement the results based on mtDNA and suggest that data-mining of EST libraries will be a useful approach to facilitate use of microsatellites for additional species.