Ecological genetics in the North Atlantic: environmental gradients and adaptation at specific loci

Ecology. 2008 Nov;89(11 Suppl):S91-107. doi: 10.1890/07-1162.1.


The North Atlantic intertidal community provides a rich set of organismal and environmental material for the study of ecological genetics. Clearly defined environmental gradients exist at multiple spatial scales: there are broad latitudinal trends in temperature, meso-scale changes in salinity along estuaries, and smaller scale gradients in desiccation and temperature spanning the intertidal range. The geology and geography of the American and European coasts provide natural replication of these gradients, allowing for population genetic analyses of parallel adaptation to environmental stress and heterogeneity. Statistical methods have been developed that provide genomic neutrality tests of population differentiation and aid in the process of candidate gene identification. In this paper, we review studies of marine organisms that illustrate associations between an environmental gradient and specific genetic markers. Such highly differentiated markers become candidate genes for adaptation to the environmental factors in question, but the functional significance of genetic variants must be comprehensively evaluated. We present a set of predictions about locus-specific selection across latitudinal, estuarine, and intertidal gradients that are likely to exist in the North Atlantic. We further present new data and analyses that support and contradict these simple selection models. Some taxa show pronounced clinal variation at certain loci against a background of mild clinal variation at many loci. These cases illustrate the procedures necessary for distinguishing selection driven by internal genomic vs. external environmental factors. We suggest that the North Atlantic intertidal community provides a model system for identifying genes that matter in ecology due to the clarity of the environmental stresses and an extensive experimental literature on ecological function. While these organisms are typically poor genetic and genomic models, advances in comparative genomics have provided access to molecular tools that can now be applied to taxa with well-defined ecologies. As many of the organisms we discuss have tight physiological limits driven by climatic factors, this synthesis of molecular population genetics with marine ecology could provide a sensitive means of assessing evolutionary responses to climate change.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Atlantic Ocean
  • Climate*
  • Ecosystem*
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genetic Markers
  • Genetic Variation
  • Greenhouse Effect
  • Marine Biology
  • Population Dynamics
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Species Specificity


  • Genetic Markers