Evolutionary theory predicts that clonal organisms are more susceptible to extinction than sexually reproducing organisms, due to low genetic variation and slow rates of evolution. In agreement, conservation management considers genetic variation as the ultimate measure of a population's ability to survive over time. However, clonal plants are among the oldest living organisms on our planet. Here, we test the hypothesis that clonal seagrass meadows display epigenetic variation that complements genetic variation as a source of phenotypic variation. In a clonal meadow of the seagrass Zostera marina, we characterized DNA methylation among 42 shoots. We also sequenced the whole genome of 10 shoots to correlate methylation patterns with photosynthetic performance under exposure to and recovery from 27°C, while controlling for somatic mutations. Here, we show for the first time that clonal seagrass shoots display DNA methylation variation that is independent from underlying genetic variation, and associated with variation in photosynthetic performance under experimental conditions. It remains unknown to what degree this association could be influenced by epigenetic responses to transplantation-related stress, given that the methylomes showed a strong shift under acclimation to laboratory conditions. The lack of untreated control samples in the heat stress experiment did not allow us to distinguish methylome shifts induced by acclimation from such induced by heat stress. Notwithstanding, the co-variation in DNA methylation and photosynthetic performance may be linked via gene expression because methylation patterns varied in functionally relevant genes involved in photosynthesis, and in the repair and prevention of heat-induced protein damage. While genotypic diversity has been shown to enhance stress resilience in seagrass meadows, we suggest that epigenetic variation plays a similar role in meadows dominated by a single genotype. Consequently, conservation management of clonal plants should consider epigenetic variation as indicator of resilience and stability.
Keywords: DNA methylation; Zostera marina (eelgrass); clonality; ecological epigenetics; heat stress; seagrass.
Copyright © 2020 Jueterbock, Boström, Coyer, Olsen, Kopp, Dhanasiri, Smolina, Arnaud-Haond, Van de Peer and Hoarau.