Signs of adaptation to local pH conditions across an environmental mosaic in the California Current ecosystem

Little is known about the potential for rapid evolution in natural populations in response to the high rate of contemporary climatic change. Organisms that have evolved in environments that experience high variability across space and time are of particular interest as they may harbor genetic variation that can facilitate evolutionary response to changing conditions. Here we review what is known about genetic capacity for adaptation in the purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, a species that has evolved in the upwelling ecosystem of the Northeast Pacific Ocean. We also present new results testing for adaptation to local pH conditions in six populations from Oregon to southern California. We integrate data on 19,493 genetic polymorphisms with data on local pH conditions. We find correlations between allele frequency and rank average time spent at pH <7.8 in 318 single-nucleotide polymorphisms in 275 genes. Two of the genes most correlated with local pH are a protein associated with the cytoskeleton and a proton pump, with functional roles in maintenance of cell volume and with internal regulation of pH, respectively. Across all loci tested, high correlations with local pH were concentrated in genes related to transport of ions, biomineralization, lipid metabolism, and cell–cell adhesion, functional pathways important for maintaining homeostasis at low pH. We identify a set of seven genes as top candidates for rapid evolutionary response to acidification of the ocean. In these genes, the putative low-pH-adapted allele, based on allele frequencies in natural populations, rapidly increases in frequency in purple sea urchin larvae raised at low pH. We also found that populations from localities with high pH show a greater change in allele frequency toward putative low-pH-adapted alleles under experimental acidification, compared with low-pH populations, suggesting that both natural and artificial selection favor the same alleles for response to low pH. These results illustrate that purple sea urchins may be adapted to local pH and suggest that this species may possess the genetic capacity for rapid evolution in response to acidification. This adaptive capacity likely comes from standing genetic variation maintained in nature by balancing selection across the spatial and temporal environmental mosaic that characterizes the California Current Ecosystem.

Pespeni M. H., Chan F., Menge B. A. & Palumbi S. R., in press. Signs of adaptation to local pH conditions across an environmental mosaic in the California Current ecosystem. Integrative & Comparative Biology. Article (subscription required).

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