Leaf-litter inputs provide substrate and energy to stream systems. These contributions vary based on species-specific differences in litter quality, but little is known about how differences in litter quality within a species can affect ecosystem processes. Genetic variation within tree species, such as oaks and cottonwoods, affects ecosystem processes including decomposition and nutrient cycling in forest ecosystems and has the potential to do the same in streams. We collected litter from 5 genotypes of each of 4 different cottonwood cross types (Populus fremontii, Populus angustifolia, and natural F1 and backcross hybrids), grown in a common garden, and measured their decomposition rates using litter bags in the Weber River, Utah. The proportion of 35 species-specific P. fremontii restriction-fragment length polymorphism markers in the genotype explained 46% and genetically controlled phytochemical mechanisms (e.g., % soluble condensed tannin in litter) explained >72% of the variation in leaf-litter decomposition rate, respectively. Understanding how natural genetic variation in plants can affect ecosystem processes will provide baseline information with which to address the loss of genetic variation (through habitat fragmentation and global change) and altered genetic variation through hybridization with cultivars and transgenic manipulations in the wild.
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