Evolutionary history of two rare conifers from the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau

This study sheds light on the evolution of two endemic juniper species from the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau and their responses to Quaternary climate fluctuations

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Understanding the population genetics and evolutionary history of endangered species is urgently needed in an era of accelerated biodiversity loss. This knowledge is most important for regions with high endemism that are ecologically vulnerable, such as the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau (QTP).

Miao et al. surveyed genetic variation of 84 juniper trees from six populations of Juniperus microsperma and one population of Juniperus erectopatens, two narrow-endemic junipers from the QTP that are sister to each other, using RNA-sequencing data. Coalescent-based analyses were used to test speciation, migration and demographic scenarios. Furthermore, positively selected and climate-associated genes were identified, and the genetic load was assessed for both species.

Juniperus microsperma and Juniperus erectopatens. Image Miao et al. 2021.

Analyses of 149 052 single nucleotide polymorphisms showed that the two species are well differentiated and monophyletic. They diverged around the late Pliocene, but interspecific gene flow continued until the Last Glacial Maximum. Demographic reconstruction by Stairway Plot detected two severe bottlenecks for J. microsperma but only one for J. erectopatens. The identified positively selected genes and climate-associated genes revealed habitat adaptation of the two species. Furthermore, although J. microsperma had a much wider geographical distribution than J. erectopatens, the former possesses lower genetic diversity and a higher genetic load than the latter.

In their paper, Miao et al. write. “Our study highlights the importance of speciation and demographic history reconstruction to understand the current distribution pattern and genetic diversity level of threatened species and to help implement conservation and management strategies.”


Miao, J., Farhat, P., Wang, W., Ruhsam, M., Milne, R., Yang, H., Tso, S., Li, J., Xu, J., Opgenoorth, L., Miehe, G., Mao, K., 2021. Evolutionary history of two rare endemic conifer species from the eastern Qinghai–Tibet Plateau. Annals of Botany. https://doi.org/10.1093/aob/mcab114


The Annals of Botany Office is based at the University of Oxford.

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