Evidence for gene flow via seed dispersal from crop to wild relatives in Beta vulgaris (Chenopodiaceae): consequences for the release of genetically modified crop species with weedy lineages

J.–F. Arnaud, F. Viard, M. Delescluse, J. Cuguen

Abstract

Gene flow and introgression from cultivated to wild plant populations have important evolutionary and ecological consequences and require detailed investigations for risk assessments of transgene escape into natural ecosystems. Sugar beets (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris) are of particular concern because: (i) they are cross–compatible with their wild relatives (the sea beet, B. vulgaris ssp. maritima); (ii) crop–to–wild gene flow is likely to occur via weedy lineages resulting from hybridization events and locally infesting fields. Using a chloroplastic marker and a set of nuclear microsatellite loci, the occurrence of crop–to–wild gene flow was investigated in the French sugar beet production area within a ‘contact–zone’ in between coastal wild populations and sugar beet fields. The results did not reveal large pollen dispersal from weed to wild beets. However, several pieces of evidence clearly show an escape of weedy lineages from fields via seed flow. Since most studies involving the assessment of transgene escape from crops to wild outcrossing relatives generally focused only on pollen dispersal, this last result was unexpected: it points out the key role of a long–lived seed bank and highlights support for transgene escape via man–mediated long–distance dispersal events.