The more the better? The role of polyploidy in facilitating plant invasions

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Abstract

Background

Biological invasions are a major ecological and socio-economic problem in many parts of the world. Despite an explosion of research in recent decades, much remains to be understood about why some species become invasive whereas others do not. Recently, polyploidy (whole genome duplication) has been proposed as an important determinant of invasiveness in plants. Genome duplication has played a major role in plant evolution and can drastically alter a plant's genetic make-up, morphology, physiology and ecology within only one or a few generations. This may allow some polyploids to succeed in strongly fluctuating environments and/or effectively colonize new habitats and, thus, increase their potential to be invasive.

Scope

We synthesize current knowledge on the importance of polyploidy for the invasion (i.e. spread) of introduced plants. We first aim to elucidate general mechanisms that are involved in the success of polyploid plants and translate this to that of plant invaders. Secondly, we provide an overview of ploidal levels in selected invasive alien plants and explain how ploidy might have contributed to their success.

Conclusions

Polyploidy can be an important factor in species invasion success through a combination of (1) ‘pre-adaptation’, whereby polyploid lineages are predisposed to conditions in the new range and, therefore, have higher survival rates and fitness in the earliest establishment phase; and (2) the possibility for subsequent adaptation due to a larger genetic diversity that may assist the ‘evolution of invasiveness’. Alternatively, polyploidization may play an important role by (3) restoring sexual reproduction following hybridization or, conversely, (4) asexual reproduction in the absence of suitable mates. We, therefore, encourage invasion biologists to incorporate assessments of ploidy in their studies of invasive alien species.

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