ICE1 demethylation drives the range expansion of a plant invader through cold tolerance divergence.
Cold tolerance adaption is a crucial determinant for the establishment and expansion of invasive alien plants into new cold environments; however, its evolutionary mechanism is poorly understood. Crofton weed (Ageratina adenophora), a highly invasive alien plant, is continuously spreading across subtropical areas in China, north-eastward from the first colonized south-western tropical regions, through cold tolerance evolution. Close relations between the cold tolerance levels of 34 populations, represented by 147 accessions, and the latitude, extreme lowest temperature, coldest month average temperature, and invasion period have provided direct insight into its cold tolerance divergence. A comparative study of the CBF pathway, associated with the cold tolerance enhancement of cold-susceptible CBF1-transgenic plant, among four geographically distinct crofton weed populations revealed that the CBF pathway plays a key role in the observed cold tolerance divergence. Four epialleles of the cold response regulator ICE1 ranged from 66 to 50 methylated cytosines, representing a 4.4% to 3.3% methylation rate and significantly corresponding to the lowest to highest cold tolerance levels among these different populations. The significant negative relation between the transcription levels of the primary CBF pathway members, except for CBF2, and the methylation levels among the four populations firstly demonstrates that the demethylation-upregulated transcription level of CBF pathway is responsible for this evolution. These facts, combined with the cold tolerance variation and methylation found among three native and two other introduced populations, indicate that the ICE1-demethylated upregulation of cold tolerance may be the underlying evolutionary mechanism allowing crofton weed to expand northward in China.