Genetic divergence in forest trees: understanding the consequences of climate change



  1. Predicted climate change is heading in many respects into untested environmental conditions for trees and to the reshuffling of species distributions. We explore the consequences that these changes are likely to have on population differentiation of adaptive traits. Superimposed on the spatial redistribution of the species, will there be a redistribution of their genetic variation?
  2. We base our predictions on a conceptual framework, whose elements are the extant differentiation, and the predicted divergent evolution of populations along purposely chosen altitudinal/latitudinal gradients. We consider simultaneously phenotypic and genetic divergence, but emphasize genetically driven population differentiation. We illustrate phenotypic and genetic patterns of variation with examples from well-studied northern and southern hemisphere tree genera Quercus and Eucalyptus.
  3. Most phenotypic traits show very large in situ clinal variation with variation in altitude or latitude. Genetic clines detected in common gardens usually follow the observed in situ phenotypic clines, reflecting cogradient variation. Rare counter gradients have also been detected, where phenotypic and genetic clines exhibit opposing signs. These patterns suggest that plasticity and selection contributed in most cases synergistically to the extant differentiation.
  4. We anticipate that microevolutionary processes will be different along environmental gradients. At the leading edge, availability of newly suitable habitats will trigger migration favouring genotypes equipped with colonists attributes. At the rear edges of the distribution, populations will be submitted to strong selective pressures favouring genotypes capable of withstanding drought and heat stress. Central populations will benefit from the plastic response of trees that will temporarily compensate for the maladaptation, until genetic adaptive variation will be restored by gene flow, mutation or recombination.
  5. We make predictions about future differentiation along environmental gradients, by highlighting traits that are likely to diverge, the rate at which differentiation will take place, and the role of gene flow and hybridization. We envisage that parallel selection may maintain differentiation at extant levels, whereas divergent selection will promote substantial differentiation for traits facilitating adaptation to contrasting conditions along the environmental gradient. We anticipate that genetic divergence may occur very rapidly and will be enhanced by the multilocus architecture of most adaptive traits.