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Genetic structure of a widespread alpine shrub Rhododendron aureum (Ericaceae) across East Asia


The vast territory of East Asia, including southwestern Beringia, is considered to have been almost ice free during the Pleistocene. Cold-resistant flora may have persisted in this region expanding or contracting its range during the climate cooling. Only a few plant genera have been studied with a sampling area across their entire geographic range in East Asia; therefore, the understanding of the biogeographic history of alpine flora in this region remains limited. In the present study, genetic variation and population structure in 21 populations of the alpine shrub Rhododendron aureum across its range in East Asia were assessed using 18 microsatellite loci. Phylogenetic analyses revealed three main genetic groups: Siberia, Northeast, and North Pacific. According to the geographical pattern of genetic diversity, the North Pacific group includes populations from Kamchatka, south of Russian Far East, and territories close to central Japan. This group is the most diverse and likely diverged earlier than the Siberia and Northeast groups. Ecological niche modeling predicts range expansion of this species during the period of cooling and, together with demographic history, suggests that the divergence between the three main genetic groups predated the Last Glacial Maximum. Similar to other cold-resistant species such as Larix sibirica and Juniperus communis, the pattern of genetic diversity of R. aureum supports the survival of the species at high latitudes during the Pleistocene with limited contribution of the southern populations to expansion of the species range to the Northeast region and Siberia.

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Data available in Supplementary data.


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We are grateful to A. Berkutenko, D. Krivenko, A. Shirayev, L. Andriyanova, M. Khoreva, P. Krestov, T. Polyakova, A. Efimova, N. Molokova for the help with material collections. We thank V. Mikryukov for the help with MAXENT figures presentation. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript. The collection of samples was supported by the State Contract of the Institute of Plant and Animal Ecology, UB RAS. The laboratory treatments were supported by the Russian Science Foundation for Basic Research (Project No. 20-04-00417 A).

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All authors contributed to the study conception and design. PM conceived the study; PM, TN, ME, PA, BN: data collection and botanical definition; PM, RM, MM: laboratory sample preparation and analyzing the data. SV: assistant with MAXENT and DYABC analyses, consultations on laboratory analyses, suggestions in draft manuscript. The first draft of the manuscript was written by PM and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Maria A. Polezhaeva.

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Supplementary Information

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Online Resource 1

: Genotypes inferred from 18 SSR loci for 21 populations of Rhododendron aureum.

Online Resource 2

: Summary of diversity statistics for the 18 SSR loci across 21 populations of R. aureum.

Online Resource 3

: Evanno’s ΔK showing K=3 to be optimal, implemented in STRUCTURE HARVESTER.

Online Resource 4

: Data from DY ABC analyses for Scenarios 1–3.

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Polezhaeva, M.A., Tikhonova, N.A., Marchuk, E.A. et al. Genetic structure of a widespread alpine shrub Rhododendron aureum (Ericaceae) across East Asia. J Plant Res 134, 91–104 (2021).

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  • Alpine plants
  • Biogeography
  • Microsatellites
  • Refugium
  • Rhododendron
  • Siberia