A First Assessment of Genetic Variation in Welwitschia mirabilis Hook
Journal of Heredity
Welwitschia mirabilis is a monotypic member of the family Welwitchiaceae which, along with Ephedra and Gnetum species, comprises the gymnospermous order Gnetales. While the monophyly of this order is now widely accepted, the relationship of the Gnetales to other seed plants is still contentious. Despite the unique phylogenetic position of W. mirabilis and its extraordinary physiological and anatomical adaptations, little is known about the plant's phylogeny or its current distribution in
... tribution in isolated locations throughout the Namib Desert. As a preliminary step in the design of an more extensive phylogeographic study, we analyzed 37 random amplified polymorphic DNA (RAPD) loci from 59 plants distributed among five sites separated by distances of 6-440 km. Cluster analysis and analysis of molecular variance (AMOVA) revealed significant levels of variation within and between populations and little evidence of inbreeding. Genetic differences between populations reflect the geographic distances separating them. Three of the populations formed discernable genetic clusters, suggesting that little gene flow occurs between populations separated by 18 km. In contrast, gene flow is occurring between two populations separated by only 6 km, supporting previous observations that pollen dispersal is primarily local and that seeds are not readily windborne over the large distances separating most W. mirabilis populations. As a working hypothesis, we propose that W. mirabilis had a continuous distribution across its current range as much as 105 million years ago, and that as a consequence of subsequent drying trends and physical disturbance, populations became progressively isolated, accounting for their current distribution.