Rapid microevolution during recent range expansion to harsh environments.
Background: Adaptive evolution is one of the crucial mechanisms for organisms to survive and thrive in new environments. Recent studies suggest that adaptive evolution could rapidly occur in species to respond to novel environments or environmental challenges during range expansion. However, for environmental adaptation, many studies successfully detected phenotypic features associated with local environments, but did not provide ample genetic evidence on microevolutionary dynamics. It is therefore crucial to thoroughly investigate the genetic basis of rapid microevolution in response to environmental changes, in particular on what genes and associated variation are responsible for environmental challenges. Here, we genotyped genome-wide gene-associated microsatellites to detect genetic signatures of rapid microevolution of a marine tunicate invader, Ciona robusta, during recent range expansion to the harsh environment in the Red Sea. Results: The Red Sea population was significantly differentiated from the other global populations. The genome-wide scan, as well as multiple analytical methods, successfully identified a set of adaptive genes. Interestingly, the allele frequency largely varied at several adaptive loci in the Red Sea population, and we found significant correlations between allele frequency and local environmental factors at these adaptive loci. Furthermore, a set of genes were annotated to get involved in local temperature and salinity adaptation, and the identified adaptive genes may largely contribute to the invasion success to harsh environments. Conclusions: All the evidence obtained in this study clearly showed that environment-driven selection had left detectable signatures in the genome of Ciona robusta within a few generations. Such a rapid microevolutionary process is largely responsible for the harsh environmental adaptation and therefore contributes to invasion success in different aquatic ecosystems with largely varied environmental factors.