Variation in soil aluminium tolerance genes is associated with local adaptation to soils at the Park Grass Experiment



Studies of the wild grass Anthoxanthum odoratum at the long-term Park Grass Experiment (PGE, Harpenden, UK) document a well-known example of rapid plant evolution in response to environmental change. Repeated fertilizer applications have acidified the soil in some experimental plots over the past 150+ years, and Anthoxanthum subpopulations have quickly become locally adapted. Early reciprocal transplants showed subpopulation differentiation specifically in response to soil aluminium (Al) toxicity across the experiment, even at small (30 m) spatial scales. Almost 40 years after its original measurement, we reassessed the degree of local adaptation to soil Al at the PGE using updated phenotyping methods and identified genes with variation linked to the tolerance trait. Root growth assays show that plants are locally adapted to soil Al at both the seedling and adult growth stages, but to a smaller extent than previously inferred. Among a large suite of candidate loci that were previously shown to have Al-sensitive expression differences between sensitive and tolerant plants, three loci contained SNPs that are associated with both Al tolerance and soil acidity: an Al-sensitive malate transporter (ALMT), a tonoplast intrinsic protein (TIP) and the putative homolog of the rice cell-wall modification gene STAR1. Natural genetic variation at these loci is likely to have contributed to the recent rapid evolution at PGE. Continued study of Al tolerance variants in Anthoxanthum will allow us to test hypotheses about the nature and source of genetic variation that enables some species to adapt to soil acidification and other types of rapid environmental change.