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Molecular evolution of the Li/li chemical defence polymorphism in white clover (Trifolium repens L.)


Kenneth M. Olsen, Fax: (314) 935-4432; E-mail:


White clover (Trifolium repens) is naturally polymorphic for cyanogenesis (hydrogen cyanide release following tissue damage). The ecological factors favouring cyanogenic and acyanogenic plants have been examined in numerous studies over the last half century, making this one of the best-documented examples of an adaptive polymorphism in plants. White clover cyanogenesis is controlled by two, independently segregating Mendelian genes: Ac/ac controls the presence/absence of cyanogenic glucosides; and Li/li controls the presence/absence of their hydrolysing enzyme, linamarase. In this study, we examine the molecular evolution and population genetics of Li as it relates to the cyanogenesis polymorphism. We report here that Li exists as a single-copy gene in plants possessing linamarase activity, and that the absence of enzyme activity in li/li plants is correlated with the absence of much or all of the gene from the white clover genome. Consistent with this finding, we confirm by reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction that Li gene expression is absent in plants lacking enzyme activity. In a molecular population genetic analysis of Li and three unlinked genes using a worldwide sample of clover plants, we find an absence of nucleotide variation and statistically significant deviations from neutrality at Li; these findings are consistent with recent positive directional selection at this cyanogenesis locus.