Autotriploidy is normally considered to be maladaptive in plants because of its association with high levels of sterility. Nonetheless, triploid individuals are found in many plant species and play important roles in plant evolution, in particular as a first step toward tetraploid formation. However, few studies have addressed the evolutionary potential of triploid lineages, which may principally suffer from the impossibility of combining useful mutations in a single genome due to their low fertility. Therefore, triploids acquire genetic diversity only via recurrent evolution and somaclonal mutation. This study evaluates the potential of multiple origins of polyploidy as a source of genetic diversity in Apios americana, a North American legume that possesses both diploid and triploid populations. Ploidy level determination via flow cytometry shows that triploids are mainly restricted to the portion of eastern North America that was covered by ice during the Wisconsinan glaciation 18,000 years ago. This distribution implies that either selection or postglaciation colonization played a role in shaping this cytogeographic pattern. A haplotype network of the single copy nuclear histone H3-D gene reconstructed using statistical parsimony, together with single-strand conformational polymorphism analysis, shows that autotriploidy evolved at least three times in this species and that heterozygosity is high in triploids. The genetic diversity found in A. americana resulting from recurrent evolution and fixed heterozygosity increases the likelihood of producing successful genotypes and may give the opportunity for triploids to be better fit than diploids in new habitats. This suggests that triploid lineages can exhibit evolutionary potential of their own, and do not serve solely as a first step toward tetraploid formation.
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Vol. 58 • No. 2