Background: At the end of the Pliocene and the beginning of Pleistocene glaciation and deglaciation cycles Ginkgo biloba went extinct all over the world, and only few populations remained in China in relict areas serving as sanctuary for Tertiary relict trees. Yet the status of these regions as refuge areas with naturally existing populations has been proven not earlier than one decade ago. Herein we elaborated the hypothesis that during the Pleistocene cooling periods G. biloba expanded its distribution range in China repeatedly. Whole plastid genomes were sequenced, assembled and annotated, and sequence data was analyzed in a phylogenetic framework of the entire gymnosperms to establish a robust spatio-temporal framework for gymnosperms and in particular for G. biloba Pleistocene evolutionary history.
Results: Using a phylogenetic approach, we identified that Ginkgoatae stem group age is about 325 million years, whereas crown group radiation of extant Ginkgo started not earlier than 390,000 years ago. During repeated warming phases, Gingko populations were separated and isolated by contraction of distribution range and retreated into mountainous regions serving as refuge for warm-temperate deciduous forests. Diversification and phylogenetic splits correlate with the onset of cooling phases when Ginkgo expanded its distribution range and gene pools merged.
Conclusions: Analysis of whole plastid genome sequence data representing the entire spatio-temporal genetic variation of wild extant Ginkgo populations revealed the deepest temporal footprint dating back to approximately 390,000 years ago. Present-day directional West-East admixture of genetic diversity is shown to be the result of pronounced effects of the last cooling period. Our evolutionary framework will serve as a conceptual roadmap for forthcoming genomic sequence data, which can then provide deep insights into the demographic history of Ginkgo.
Keywords: Evolutionary history; Ginkgo biloba; Phylogenomics; Pleistocene.