The salinity gradient separating marine and freshwater environments represents a major ecological divide for microbiota, yet the mechanisms by which marine microbes have adapted to and ultimately diversified in freshwater environments are poorly understood. Here, we take advantage of a natural evolutionary experiment: the colonization of the brackish Baltic Sea by the ancestrally marine diatom Skeletonema marinoi. To understand how diatoms respond to low salinity, we characterized transcriptomic responses of acclimated S. marinoi grown in a common garden. Our experiment included eight strains from source populations spanning the Baltic Sea salinity cline. Gene expression analysis revealed that low salinities induced changes in the cellular metabolism of S. marinoi, including upregulation of photosynthesis and storage compound biosynthesis, increased nutrient demand, and a complex response to oxidative stress. However, the strain effect overshadowed the salinity effect, as strains differed significantly in their response, both regarding the strength and the strategy (direction of gene expression) of their response. The high degree of intraspecific variation in gene expression observed here highlights an important but often overlooked source of biological variation associated with how diatoms respond to environmental change.
© 2022. The Author(s).