Interspecific gene flow can lead to the formation of hybrid populations that have a competitive advantage over the parental populations, even for hybrids from a cross between crops and wild relatives. Wild prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) has recently expanded in Europe and hybridization with the related crop species (cultivated lettuce, L. sativa) has been hypothesized as one of the mechanisms behind this expansion. In a basically selfing species, such as lettuce, assessing hybridization in natural populations may not be straightforward. Therefore, we analysed a uniquely large data set of plants genotyped with SSR (simple sequence repeat) markers with two programs for Bayesian population genetic analysis, STRUCTURE and NewHybrids. The data set comprised 7738 plants, including a complete genebank collection, which provided a wide coverage of cultivated germplasm and a fair coverage of wild accessions, and a set of wild populations recently sampled across Europe. STRUCTURE analysis inferred the occurrence of hybrids at a level of 7% across Europe. NewHybrids indicated these hybrids to be advanced selfed generations of a hybridization event or of one backcross after such an event, which is according to expectations for a basically selfing species. These advanced selfed generations could not be detected effectively with crop-specific alleles. In the northern part of Europe, where the expansion of L. serriola took place, the fewest putative hybrids were found. Therefore, we conclude that other mechanisms than crop/wild gene flow, such as an increase in disturbed habitats and/or climate warming, are more likely explanations for this expansion.
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