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Keywords:

  • Climate change;
  • DNA methylation;
  • drought;
  • methylation-sensitive amplified polymorphism

Abstract

Rapid genetic changes in plants have been reported in response to current climate change. We assessed the capacity of trees in a natural forest to produce rapid acclimation responses based on epigenetic modifications. We analysed natural populations of Quercus ilex, the dominant tree species of Mediterranean forests, using the methylation-sensitive amplified polymorphism (MSAP) technique to assess patterns and levels of methylation in individuals from unstressed forest plots and from plots experimentally exposed to drought for 12 years at levels projected for the coming decades. The percentage of hypermethylated loci increased, and the percentage of fully methylated loci clearly decreased in plants exposed to drought. Multivariate analyses exploring the status of methylation at MSAP loci also showed clear differentiation depending on stress. The PCA scores for the MSAP profiles clearly separated the genetic from the epigenetic structure, and also significantly separated the samples within each group in response to drought. Changes in DNA methylation highlight the large capacity of plants to rapidly acclimate to changing environmental conditions, including trees with long life spans, and our results demonstrate those changes. These changes, although unable to prevent the decreased growth and higher mortality associated with this experimental drought, occurred together with a dampening in such decreases as the long-term treatment progressed.