What can genomics reveal about mountain sorrel and adaptations to life in the tundra?

By Jon Henn

During the last year, a group of us at Gothenburg including myself, Maria Fernanda Jimenez Torres, Christine Bacon, and Anne Bjorkman have been working to build a project examining genomic variation in Oxyria digynaOxyria, or mountain sorrel, is a very widespread plant that grows basically anywhere that is somewhat open and that stays cold for much of the year (see range map from GBIF below). This massive range allows us to ask really exciting questions about how this plant is adapted to variation in temperature, day length, and other local environmental characteristics. By sequencing the genomes of a bunch of individual plants from around their range, we can ask about the genetic basis of adaptation to different conditions and whether the ability to live in so many places is because of a huge amount of plasticity or a long history of local evolution and adaptation. We are hoping that what we discover will help in determining climate change response strategies to conserve diversity as arctic and alpine regions rapidly change.

As you might imagine, if we are going to sequence the genome from plants across the range of Oxyria, we need to actually collect samples to sequence. So, in the late spring of 2020 we put out a call to crowd-source collections from the International Tundra Experiment (ITEX) network and other friends from around the world. To sum up that part of the story, we have gotten a ton of collections from all around the world including Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Slovakia, and Italy. More keep trickling in, and this ended up being a great way to find samples, especially during COVID when travel logistics are not easy.

I ended up devoting about a month of my summer to collecting samples from the US Rocky Mountains from southern Colorado to northern Montana. This was a very special experience in many ways. First, I had never seen so many places in the mountains and it really gave me a great idea of how diverse the Rocky Mountains are (see map of collection locations). Second, I was able to climb mountains just about every day (Oxyria likes it cold, so it’s mostly found only above tree line). And finally, I was able to coordinate this adventure so that my partner could come along with me to work during the week and collect with me during the weekends. I had never done collection-based field work and I learned a lot in the process. It is definitely discouraging to hike all day up a mountain only to be eluded by the plant that you want, but I think that by the end of my trip, I had a really good idea of where to look for Oxyria

Sampling locations in the Rockies

To cap it all off, I was lucky enough to spend a week in Barrow/Utqiagvik, Alaska with Adrian Hill to collect Oxyria from the northern-most part of the USA. The stark beauty of the area left a lasting impression. I feel extremely fortunate to have had this summer adventure, enjoy some pretty pictures!

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