Sequence diversity and haplotype associations with phenotypic responses to crowding: GIGANTEA affects fruit set in Arabidopsis thaliana.
Identifying the molecular genetic basis of intraspecific variation in quantitative traits promises to provide novel insight into their evolutionary history as well as genetic mechanisms of adaptation. In an attempt to identify genes responsible for natural variation in competitive responses in Arabidopsis thaliana, we examined DNA sequence diversity at seven loci previously identified as members of the phytochrome B signalling network. For one gene, GIGANTEA (GI), we detected significant haplotype structure. To test for GI haplogroup-phenotype associations, we genotyped 161 A. thaliana accessions at GI and censused the same accessions for total fruit set and the expression of three phenotypic traits (days to flowering, petiole length, and inflorescence height) in a greenhouse experiment where plants were grown in crowded and uncrowded environments. We detected a significant association between GI and total fruit set that resulted in a 14% difference in average fruit set among GI haplogroups. Given that fruit set is an important component of fitness in this species and given the magnitude of the effect, the question arises as to how variation at this locus is maintained. Our observation of frequent and significant epistasis between GI and background single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP), where the fitness ranking of the GI allele either reverses or does not differ depending on the allele at the interacting SNP, suggests that epistatic selection may actively maintain or at least slow the loss of variation at GI. This result is particularly noteworthy in the light of the ongoing debate regarding the genetic underpinnings of phenotypic evolution and recent observations that epistasis for phenotypic traits and components of fitness is common in A. thaliana.