The role of genes in understanding the evolutionary ecology of reef building corals
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- Palumbi, S.R., Vollmer, S., Romano, S. et al. Evol Ecol (2012) 26: 317. doi:10.1007/s10682-011-9517-3
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A key tool in evolutionary ecology is information about the temporal dynamics of species over time. Paleontology has long been the major source of this information, however, a very different source of temporal data resides in the variation of genes within and between species. These data provide an independent way to date species divergence but can also uniquely reveal processes such as gene introgression between species and demographic isolation within species. Genetic tools are particularly useful for understanding genera with closely related species that can potentially hybridize, such as reef building corals. Here we use genetic data from four loci (3 introns and 1 mitochondrial) to assay divergence and gene flow in Caribbean corals. The data show that there is persistent gene flow between species in the genus Acropora, but that this gene flow is unidirectional and highly variable among loci. Selection against introgressed alleles is high enough at one locus, Mini-collagen, to prevent gene flow between species. By contrast, selection against mitochondrial introgression appears much weaker, with 40–80 times higher rates of inter-specific gene flow than for any nuclear locus we examined. The same loci also show that gene flow among locations within species is locally restricted, but is nevertheless much higher between populations than between species. Interpretation of population data is complicated by the variable nature of selection on introgressed alleles, and some patterns of genetic differentiation might be driven by local introgression and selection. The combination of inter-specific and intra-specific data using the same loci treated in a genealogical framework helps resolve complications due to introgression and helps paint a picture of the evolution and maintenance of species in a complex spatial and temporal framework.