The plant family Brassicaceae (or crucifers) is an economically important group that includes many food crops (e.g. cabbages and radishes), horticultural species (e.g. Draba, Iberis, Lunaria), and model plant species (particularly Arabidopsis thaliana). Because of the fundamental importance of A. thaliana to plant biology, it makes the Brassicaceae an ideal system for comparative genomics and to test wider evolutionary, ecological and speciation hypotheses. One such hypothesis is the ‘Whole Genome Duplication Radiation Lag Time’ (WGD-RLT) model for the role of polyploidy on the evolution of important plant families such as the Brassicaceae. The WGD-RLT model indicates a higher rate of diversification of a core-group compared to its sister group, due to a lag time after a whole genome duplication event that made it possible for novel traits or geo- or ecological events to increase the core groups diversification rate.
Aethionema is the species-poor sister genus of the core Brassicaceae and hence is at an important comparative position to analyse trait and genomic evolution of the species-rich core group. Aethionema species occur mainly in the western Irano-Turanian region, which is concordantly the biodiversity hotspot of the Brassicaceae family. Moreover comparing Aethionema to the Brassicaceae core group can help us to understand and test the ‘WGD-RLT’ model. However to be able to do so we first need to know more about Aethionema. In this thesis, I investigated various levels of evolutionary change (from macro, to micro to trait evolution) within the genus Aethionema, with a major focus the emerging model species Aethionema arabicum.
Next generation sequencing has made it possible to use the genomes of many species in a comparative framework. However, the formation of proteins and enzymes, and in the end the phenotype of the whole plant, relies on transcription from particular regions of the genome including genes. Hence, the transcriptome makes it possible to assess the functional parts of the genome. However, the functional part of the genome not only relies on the protein coding genes. Gene regulatory elements like promoters and long non-coding RNAs function as regulators of gene expression and hence are involved in increasing or decreasing transcription. In Chapter 2 I used the transcriptome of four different Aethionema species to understand the lineage specificity of these long non-coding RNAs. Moreover in a comparison with the Brassicaceae core group and Brassicaceae’s sister family the Cleomaceae I show that although the position of long non-coding RNAs can be conserved, their sequences do not have to be.
Most of the Aethionema species occur in the Irano-Turanian region, a politically instable region, making it hard for scientist to collect from. However the natural history collections made throughout the last centuries are a great resource. Combing these collections with the newest sequencing techniques, e.g. next generation sequencing, have allowed me to infer the phylogeny of ~75% of the known Aethionema species in a time calibrated and historical biogeographical framework. Hence, I was able to establish that Aethionema species likely originated from the Anatolian Diagonal and that major geological events like the uplift of the Turkish and Iranian plateau have had a hand in their speciation (Chapter 3).
To examine species-level processes I sequenced and analysed transcriptomes of eight Ae. arabicum accessions coming from Cyprus, Iran and Turkey to investigate population structure, genetic diversity and local adaptation (Chapter 4). The most prominent finding was a ploidy difference between the Iranian and Turkish/Cypriotic lines, whereby the former were (allo)tetraploid and the latter diploid. The tetraploid Iranian lines seem to have one set of alleles from the Turkish/Cypriotic gene-pool. However we do not know where the other alleles come from. In addition to the differences in ploidy level there are also differences in glucosinolate defence compounds between these two populations (Iranian vs Turkish/Cypriotic), with the Iranian lines lacking the diversity and concentration of indolic glucosinolates that the Turkish/Cypriotic lines have. This chapter serves as a good resource and starting point for future research in the region, maybe by using the natural history collections that are at hand.
Glucosinolates (i.e. mustard oils) are mainly made by Brassicales species, with their highest structural diversity in the Brassicaceae. In Chapter 5, I examined two Ae. arabicum lines (CYP and TUR) and their recombinant inbred lines to assess glucosinolate composition in different tissues and throughout the plants development. The levels of glucosinolates in the leaves changed when Ae. arabicum went from vegetative to a reproductive state. Moreover, a major difference in glucosinolate content (up to 10-fold) between CYP and TUR indicates a likely regulatory pathway outside of the main glucosinolate biosynthesis pathway. Multi-trait and multi-environment QTL analyses based on leaves, reproductive tissues and seeds identified a single major QTL. Fine mapping this region reduced the interval to only fifteen protein coding genes, including the two most intriguing candidates: FLOWERING LOCUS C (FLC) and the sulphate transporter SULTR2;1. These findings show an interesting correlation between development and defence.
Finally, Chapter 6 gives a final discussion of this thesis and its results. It brings the different topics together, put them in a bigger picture and look forward to new research possibilities.