Genetic and Epigenetic Variation in Spartina alterniflora Following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

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Evolutionary Applications






Catastrophic events offer unique opportunities to study rapid population response to stress in natural settings. In concert with genetic variation, epigenetic mechanisms may allow populations to persist through severe environmental challenges. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated large portions of the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. However, the foundational salt marsh grass, Spartina alterniflora, showed high resilience to this strong environmental disturbance. Following the spill, we simultaneously examined the genetic and epigenetic structure of recovering populations of S. alterniflora to oil exposure. We quantified genetic and DNA methylation variation using amplified fragment length polymorphism and methylation sensitive fragment length polymorphism (MS‐AFLP) to test the hypothesis that response to oil exposure in S. alterniflora resulted in genetically and epigenetically based population differentiation. We found high genetic and epigenetic variation within and among sites and found significant genetic differentiation between contaminated and uncontaminated sites, which may reflect nonrandom mortality in response to oil exposure. Additionally, despite a lack of genomewide patterns in DNA methylation between contaminated and uncontaminated sites, we found five MS‐AFLP loci (12% of polymorphic MS‐AFLP loci) that were correlated with oil exposure. Overall, our findings support genetically based differentiation correlated with exposure to the oil spill in this system, but also suggest a potential role for epigenetic mechanisms in population differentiation.