Interspecific gene flow is increasingly recognized as an important evolutionary phenomenon in plants. A surprising observation is that historical introgression is often inferred between species that presently have geographic and reproductive barriers that would appear to prohibit the inferred sexual exchange. A striking example concerns Gossypium aridum (subsection Erioxylum); previous analyses have shown that populations from Colima (southwestern Mexico) have a chloroplast genome (cpDNA) similar to that of a different taxonomic subsection (Integrifolia) that presently is confined to Baja California and the Galapagos Islands, whereas other G. aridum populations share a cpDNA lineage with each other and with other species in subsection Erioxylum. To evaluate further the possibility that this cpDNA evidence reflects introgression as opposed to some other evolutionary process, as well as to explore patterns of genetic diversity and similarity in both subsections, we conducted amplified fragment-length polymorphism (AFLP) analysis using 50 populations representing all seven species in the two subsections. Genetic diversity is high in G. aridum, and is strongly correlated with geography, as are similarities among the five species in subsection Erioxylum. This subsection is genetically distant from the two species in subsection Integrifolia, whose populations are highly similar inter se. Populations of G. aridum from Colima are genetically distinct from the remainder of the species, and exhibit a comparatively high frequency of AFLP fragments that otherwise are diagnostic of the Integrifolia lineage. These data implicate intersubsectional introgression between presently allopatric and genetically isolated clades, giving rise to a morphologically cryptic, introgressant entity. Biogeographic considerations suggest that this history was initiated following migration of one or more seeds from Baja California to the Colima coast, perhaps during the Pleistocene. We suggest that cryptic and seemingly improbable interspecific introgression and molecular differentiation may be more common than appreciated in angiosperm evolution.
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