Many ecological interactions of aspens and their relatives (Populus spp.) are affected by products of the phenylpropanoid pathway synthesizing condensed tannins (CTs), whose production involves trade-offs with other ecologically important compounds and with growth. Genes of this pathway are candidates for investigating the role of selection on ecologically important, polygenic traits. We analysed sequences from 25 genes representing 10 steps of the CT synthesis pathway, which produces CTs used in defence and lignins used for growth, in 12 individuals of European aspen (Populus tremula). We compared these to homologs from P. trichocarpa, to a control set of 77 P. tremula genes, to genome-wide resequencing data and to RNA-seq expression levels, in order to identify signatures of selection distinct from those of demography. In Populus, pathway position exerts a strong influence on the evolution of these genes. Nonsynonymous diversity, divergence and allele frequency shifts (Tajima's D) were much lower than for synonymous measures. Expression levels were higher, and the direction of selection more negative, for upstream genes than for those downstream. Selective constraints act with increasing intensity on upstream genes, despite the presence of multiple paralogs in most gene families. Pleiotropy, expression level, flux control and codon bias appear to interact in determining levels and patterns of variation in genes of this pathway, whose products mediate a wide array of ecological interactions for this widely distributed species.
Keywords: E-R anticorrelation; condensed tannins; gene expression; negative selection; pathway pleiotropy; plant defence.
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.