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Plant Genetics Informing Restoration in the West

Three recently published papers by the Southwest Biological Science Center illustrate how genetics can aid in plant restoration efforts in the arid American West. Collectively, the papers reveal genetic variation of a bunchgrass species used in restoration efforts, evidence for hybridization between two species of grass used in restoration, and a discussion of seed transfer zones.

Colorado Plateau native plant community
Colorado Plateau plant community dominated by native forbs and perennial grass species west of Los Lunas, New Mexico. Image does not depict study areas used in three studies. It does, however, depict arid grassland ecosystem.  (Credit: Rob Massatti, USGS. Public domain.)

Three papers recently published out of the USGS Southwest Biological Science Center (SBSC) discuss how genetics can inform restoration across the Intermountain West. Two papers document genetic patterns in James’ galleta grass (Hilaria jamesii, aka Pleuraphis jamesii), an important dryland bunchgrass species across the southwest. The authors first investigated landscape-level patterns of genetic variation and historical factors (e.g., post-glacial warming) influencing contemporary patterns of adaptation in James’ galleta grass. These data underlie recently-released genetically-based seed transfer zones (STZs) that account for both neutral and adaptive patterns of genetic variation. In the second paper, the authors discuss evidence of hybridization where James’ galleta grass comes into contact with its sister species, tobosa grass (Hilaria mutica). Importantly, the only available restoration material for James’ galleta grass, ‘Viva,’ is a hybrid between these two species. The third paper discusses the application of provisional STZs not only to seed transfer but also native plant materials development for species where no other data are available. In short, due to the region’s complex topography and interactions with climatic changes during the Pleistocene, species’ patterns of genetic variation are highly variable. As a result, STZs, even when constrained by ecoregions, are large enough that they may facilitate the mixing of highly genetically differentiated individuals, which can lead to unexpected and potentially negative outcomes after restoration efforts. Suggestions to mitigate risks are provided by assessing available genetic data for other plant species distributed across this region

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