Ecosystem implications of genetic variation in water-use of a dominant riparian tree
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Genetic variation in dominant species can affect plant and ecosystem functions in natural systems through multiple pathways. Our study focuses on how genetic variation in a dominant riparian tree (Populus fremontii, P. angustifolia and their natural F1 and backcross hybrids) affects whole-tree water use, and its potential ecosystem implications. Three major patterns were found. First, in a 12-year-old common garden with trees of known genetic makeup, hybrids had elevated daily integrated leaf-specific transpiration (Etl ; P=0.013) and average canopy conductance (Gc ; P=0.037), with both Etl and Gc ~30% higher in hybrid cross types than parental types. Second, δ13C values of leaves from these same trees were significantly more negative in hybrids (P=0.004), and backcross hybrids had significantly more negative values than all other F1 hybrid and parental types (P <0.001). Third, in the wild, a similar pattern was found in leaf δ13C values where both hybrid cross types had the lowest values (P <0.001) and backcross hybrids had lower δ13C values than any other tree type (P <0.001). Our findings have two important implications: (1) the existence of a consistent genetic difference in whole-tree physiology suggests that whole-tree gas and water exchange could be another pathway through which genes could affect ecosystems; and (2) such studies are important because they seek to quantify the genetic variation that exists in basic physiological processes—such knowledge could ultimately place ecosystem studies within a genetic framework.