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Characterizing the genetic diversity of the Andean blueberry (Vaccinium floribundum Kunth.) across the Ecuadorian Highlands

Vega-Polo, Pamela and Cobo, Maria Mercedes and Argudo, Andrea and Gutierrez, Bernardo and Rowntree, Jennifer and Torres, Maria de Lourdes (2020) Characterizing the genetic diversity of the Andean blueberry (Vaccinium floribundum Kunth.) across the Ecuadorian Highlands. PLOS ONE, 15 (12). e0243420-e0243420.

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Abstract

The Ecuadorian páramo, a high altitude tundra-like ecosystem, is a unique source of various ecosystem services and distinct biodiversity. Anthropogenic activities are associated with its fragmentation, which alters ecological factors and directly threatens resident species. Vaccinium floribundum Kunth., commonly known as Andean blueberry or mortiño, is a wild shrub endemic to the Andean region and highly valued in Ecuador for its berries, which are widely used in food preparations and hold an important cultural value. Since it is a wild species, mortiño could be vulnerable to environmental changes, resulting in a reduction of the size and distribution of its populations. To evaluate the extent of these effects on the mortiño populations, we assessed the genetic diversity and population structure of the species along the Ecuadorian highlands. We designed and developed a set of 30 species-specific SSR (simple sequence repeats) markers and used 16 of these to characterize 100 mortiño individuals from 27 collection sites. Our results revealed a high degree of genetic diversity (HE = 0.73) for the Ecuadorian mortiño, and a population structure analyses suggested the existence of distinct genetic clusters present in the northern, central and southern highlands. A fourth, clearly differentiated cluster was also found and included individuals from locations at higher elevations. We suggest that the population structure of the species could be explained by an isolation-by-distance model and can be associated with the geological history of the Andean region. Our results suggest that elevation could also be a key factor in the differentiation of mortiño populations. This study provides an extensive overview of the species across its distribution range in Ecuador, contributing to a better understanding of its conservation status. These results can assist in the development of conservation programs for this valuable biological and cultural resource and for the páramo ecosystem as a whole.

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