Understanding the molecular evolution of genes that underlie intraspecific polymorphisms can provide insights into the process of adaptive evolution. For adaptive polymorphisms characterized by gene presence/absence (P/A) variation, underlying loci commonly show signatures of long-term balancing selection, with gene-presence and gene-absence alleles maintained as two divergent lineages. We examined the molecular evolution of two unlinked P/A polymorphisms that underlie a well-documented adaptive polymorphism for cyanogenesis (hydrogen cyanide release with tissue damage) in white clover. Both cyanogenic and acyanogenic plants occur in this species, and the ecological forces that maintain this chemical defence polymorphism have been studied for several decades. Using a sample of 65 plants, we investigated the molecular evolution of sequences flanking the two underlying cyanogenesis genes: Ac/ac (controlling the presence/absence of cyanogenic glucosides) and Li/li (controlling the presence/absence of their hydrolysing enzyme, linamarase). A combination of genome walking, PCR assays, DNA sequence analysis and Southern blotting was used to test whether these adaptive P/A polymorphisms show evidence of long-term balancing selection, or whether gene-absence alleles have evolved repeatedly through independent deletion events. For both loci, we detect no signatures of balancing selection in the closest flanking genomic sequences. Instead, we find evidence for variation in the size of the deletions characterizing gene-absence alleles. These observations strongly suggest that both of these polymorphisms have been evolving through recurrent gene deletions over time. We discuss the genetic mechanisms that could account for this surprising pattern and the implications of these findings for mechanisms of rapid adaptive evolution in white clover.
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