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Characterizing the genetic diversity of the Andean blueberry (Vaccinium floribundum Kunth.) across the Ecuadorian Highlands

By Pamela Vega-Polo, Maria M Cobo, Andrea Argudo, Bernardo Gutierrez, Jennifer Rowntree, MarĂ­a de Lourdes Torres

Posted 02 Oct 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.09.30.319681

The Ecuadorian p&aacuteramo, a high altitude tundra-like ecosystem, is a unique source of various ecosystem services and distinct biodiversity. Anthropogenic activities are associated with its fragmentation, which alters ecological factors and directly threatens resident species. Vaccinium floribundum Kunth., commonly known as Andean blueberry or morti&ntildeo, is a wild shrub endemic to the Andean region and highly valued in Ecuador for its berries, which are widely used in food preparations and hold an important cultural value. Since it is a wild species, morti&ntildeo could be vulnerable to environmental changes, resulting in a reduction of the size and distribution of its populations. To evaluate the extent of these effects on the morti&ntildeo populations, we assessed the genetic diversity and population structure of the species along the Ecuadorian highlands. We designed and developed a set of 30 homologous SSR markers and used 16 of these to characterize 100 morti&ntildeo individuals from 27 collection sites. Our results revealed a high degree of genetic diversity (HE=0.73) for the Ecuadorian morti&ntildeo, and a population structure analyses suggested the existence of distinct genetic clusters present in the northern, central and southern highlands. A fourth, clearly differentiated cluster was also found and included individuals from locations at higher elevations. We suggest that the population structure of the species could be explained by an isolation-by-distance model and can be associated to the geological history of the Andean region. Our results suggest that elevation could also be a key factor in the differentiation of morti&ntildeo populations. This study provides an extensive overview of the species across its distribution range in Ecuador, contributing to a better understanding of its conservation status. These results can assist the development of conservation programs for this valuable biological and cultural resource and for the p&aacuteramo ecosystem as a whole. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.

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