Genetic diversity of feral alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) populations occurring in Manitoba, Canada and comparison with alfalfa cultivars: an analysis using SSR markers and phenotypic traits
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Feral populations of cultivated crops may act as reservoirs for novel traits and aid in trait movement across the landscape. Knowledge on the genetic diversity of feral populations may provide new insights into their origin and evolution and may help in the design of efficient novel trait confinement protocols. In this study, the genetic diversity of 12 feral alfalfa (Medicago sativa) populations originating from southern Manitoba (Canada) and 10 alfalfa cultivars and a M. falcata germplasm were investigated using eight SSR markers (i.e., microsatellites) and 14 phenotypic traits. We found that the genetic diversity observed in feral populations was similar to the diversity detected among the 10 cultivars. Analysis of molecular variance revealed that there was great genetic variation within (99.8%) rather than between different feral populations. Cluster analysis (unweighted pair-group method using arithmetic average) revealed no differentiation between feral populations and cultivars for neutral loci. High levels of population differentiation for phenotypic traits (and not for neutral markers) suggest the occurrence of heterogeneous selection for adaptive traits. The phenotypic traits we studied did not distinctly separate feral populations from cultivars but there was evidence of natural selection in feral populations for traits including winter survivability, rhizome production, and prostrate growth habit. Our results suggest that feral alfalfa populations need to be considered in the risk assessment of alfalfa containing novel genetically modified (GM) traits. Further, feral alfalfa populations may be regarded as a source of new germplasm for plant improvement.