Climate is the primary driver of the distribution of tree species worldwide, and the potential for adaptive evolution will be an important factor determining the response of forests to anthropogenic climate change. Although association mapping has the potential to improve our understanding of the genomic underpinnings of climatically relevant traits, the utility of adaptive polymorphisms uncovered by such studies would be greatly enhanced by the development of integrated models that account for the phenotypic effects of multiple single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and their interactions simultaneously. We previously reported the results of association mapping in the widespread conifer Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis). In the current study we used the recursive partitioning algorithm ‘Random Forest’ to identify optimized combinations of SNPs to predict adaptive phenotypes. After adjusting for population structure, we were able to explain 37% and 30% of the phenotypic variation, respectively, in two locally adaptive traits—autumn budset timing and cold hardiness. For each trait, the leading five SNPs captured much of the phenotypic variation. To determine the role of epistasis in shaping these phenotypes, we also used a novel approach to quantify the strength and direction of pairwise interactions between SNPs and found such interactions to be common. Our results demonstrate the power of Random Forest to identify subsets of markers that are most important to climatic adaptation, and suggest that interactions among these loci may be widespread.
- Random Forest
- association mapping
- cold hardiness
- shared data resources
The health of forest tree populations is inextricably linked with the ability of local populations to track phenotypic optimums enforced by their respective climates. With anthropogenic climate change substantially altering adaptive landscapes, tree populations are expected to suffer maladaptation, become sources rather than sinks of carbon, and ultimately be forced to adapt, migrate, or be extirpated (Savolainen et al. 2007; Aitken et al. 2008). Paleoecological data suggest that migration rates may be insufficient to realize range shifts predicted by climate-based species distribution models (Malcolm et al. 2002; McLachlan et al. 2005; Hamann and Wang 2006), and thus, the importance of adaptive evolution in response to new climatic regimes cannot be underestimated. To determine the potential for adaptation, we must first have an understanding of the genomic underpinnings of variation in climate-related phenotypic traits.
The current method of choice for elucidating the genomic determinants of complex adaptive traits is association mapping (Neale and Savolainen 2004; Gonzalez-Martinez et al. 2006b). Widespread temperate and boreal tree species are well suited to this approach, which has been successfully demonstrated in a variety of species (Gonzalez-Martinez et al. 2007, 2008; Ingvarsson et al. 2008; Eckert et al. 2009a; Holliday et al. 2010; Wegrzyn et al. 2010). Conventional analytical approaches to association mapping studies estimate the marginal effect of individual polymorphisms on the trait of interest (Yu et al. 2006), but these approaches are not designed to predict phenotypes from multilocus genotypes nor to detect interactions among loci. There has been increasing interest in the use of multiple regression-like models that take all single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) as predictor variables simultaneously. This approach is most frequently applied to mapping populations generated by controlled crosses for the purposes of selecting germplasm for deployment or further crosses in breeding programs—so-called “genomic selection.” The goal of these methods is not so much to identify trait-associated SNPs as it is to saturate the genome with markers such that most quantitative trait loci will be captured through linkage disequilibrium (Meuwissen et al. 2001; Jannink et al. 2010). The extension of this approach to trees has been suggested and the first test cases recently reported (Grattapaglia and Resende 2011; Resende et al. 2012)
Although genomic selection has shown great promise in the fields of animal and plant breeding, it is not currently feasible as a tool for conservation genetics in natural populations because of the rapid decay of linkage disequilibrium (LD), which would necessitate hundreds of thousands to millions of markers be genotyped. Ideally, one would be able to identify a small core set of ecologically relevant markers that comprise much of the adaptive variation segregating in the wild, which could then be targeted by land managers to assess the adaptive portfolio of local populations. The decision tree algorithm ‘Random Forest’ (RF) (Breiman 2001) is an alternative method to uncover the relative importance of SNPs to the expression of adaptive traits and to predict the phenotypes of adaptive traits by accounting for both the cumulative effect of individual SNPs and the effect of all forms of interactions among SNPs without the need to define these terms in the model. The principle behind RF is to build decision trees (or regression trees in the case of continuous dependent variables) by categorizing observations using multiple predictor variables. In contrast to conventional decision and regression tree approaches, RF constructs a large number of trees (the ‘forest’) by introducing two layers of randomness—random bootstrap sampling of the data and random selection of a subset of predictors for splitting at each node—which improves predictive accuracy (Cordell 2009). The relative importance of individual SNPs is assessed by permutation: SNPs with no effect on phenotypes will not change the prediction of the tree when their values are permuted, whereas SNPs with explanatory power will. Several studies have used RF to detect loci involved in binary disease phenotypes in humans (Bureau et al. 2005; Goldstein et al. 2010; Chen et al. 2011;), and one study extended the RF approach to quantitative variation in resistance to powdery mildew in Arabidopsis (Nemri et al. 2010).
In addition to accounting for multilocus combined effects, RF can be used to test for interactions (i.e., epistasis) among SNPs. Epistasis is a fundamental component of complex trait variation that may be an important driver of adaptation, but such effects are difficult to quantify because of the computational burden of testing all possible pairwise interactions for hundreds or thousands of loci (Phillips 2008). In the context of association mapping, several methods have been developed to detect interacting SNPs (Hahn et al. 2003; Lunn et al. 2006; Moore et al. 2006; Zhang and Liu 2007), but these methods are still computationally intensive (and in some cases intractable) for datasets comprising more than a few hundred SNPs (Cordell 2009). By contrast, RF offers an efficient framework to test for epistasis, which does not require that all possible pairwise interactions be specified in the model. Any predictor SNP in an RF model that has a significant interaction, even in the absence of a main effect, should be assigned high importance because the phenotype prediction will change when its values are permuted. Lunetta et al. (2004) simulated interacting disease risk-associated SNPs and found that selecting SNPs on the basis of their importance value from an RF analysis lead to improved detection of epistasis. Jiang et al. (2009) applied a sliding-window approach with RF to reduce the number SNPs tested for interactions in a case-control binary trait study involving a huge number of SNPs. However, to the best of our knowledge no report has been made that tested SNP interactions for quantitative traits using RF. In particular, no method is available to detect the directions of such interactions between each SNP pair.
We recently completed an association study in Sitka spruce encompassing 202 candidate genes related to local adaptation, and identified numerous genotype-phenotype associations (Holliday et al. 2010). Among 339 SNPs tested, 35 were significantly associated with either timing of budset or cold hardiness. The current paper uses the RF framework to analyze the same dataset by building an integrated model to predict phenotypes on the basis of their multilocus genotypes, to select a subset of SNPs with the greatest predictive power, and uses a novel approach to detect the extent and direction of epistasis among these predictive SNPs.
Materials and Methods
We previously reported association mapping of climate-related traits in Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) (Holliday et al. 2010). In this study, the Illumina GoldenGate platform was used to genotype a range-wide mapping population of 410 individuals, which were also measured for timing of budset (defined as the Julian date on which the first bud scales were visible, assessed weekly from July 7 through December 31, 2007) and cold hardiness (measured on December 1, 2007, using electrolyte leakage as a proxy for cell death after Hannerz et al. (1999)). Sampled populations, their origins, and cluster assignments are described in supplementary materials (supporting information, Table S1). Substantial variation both within and among populations was observed for both of these traits. By using a mixed model approach that accounts for population structure, we found 35 SNP loci (from a panel of 339 successful SNP assays) to be associated with timing of autumn budset, autumn cold hardiness, or both.
We used the data from Holliday et al. (2010) to build a predictive model for adaptive traits, for which dependent variables consisted of the two phenotypes described previously, and independent variables consisted of 339 SNPs that passed quality control and were polymorphic. Candidate gene names and genotype/phenotype data can be found in supplementary materials (Table S2 and Table S3, respectively). The procedure to build the random forest is as follows: (1) take a bootstrap sample of observations (i.e., a random sample with replacement; ∼64% by default) from the total population, leaving the rest ‘out of bag’ (OOB) to be used for independent predictions and error checking; (2) at each successive node randomly sample a subset of SNPs (approximately the square-root of the total by default, but tuned for optimal values), and use the SNP that minimizes predictive error to split observations at that node into ‘branches’; (3) continue this process until there is no further improvement in predictive accuracy of terminal ‘leaves’; (4) repeat the aforementioned steps to build a large number of regression trees forming the random forest; (5) predict the phenotypes for the OOB samples through the trees for which they were OOB and take the average of the predictions across trees as the final phenotype prediction for a given sample. The importance value reflecting the relative contribution of each SNP to the model is estimated by randomly permuting its values and recalculating the predictive accuracy of the model. The difference of the model accuracy before and after the random permutations, averaged over all trees in the forest, tells us how important that predictor is for determining the outcome. The amount of variance explained by the predicted values relative to the total amount of variation in the observed phenotypes provides an estimate of the explanatory power of the model.
Because population structure can increase type-one error rates (false-positives) in association studies, model predictions are more credible with population structure removed. Holliday et al. (2010) used Structure software (Pritchard et al. 2000) to show that three populations provides the most parsimonious solution to population subdivision across the species range in Sitka spruce. To remove the effect of population structure, we regressed the two phenotypic traits on estimates of cluster membership derived from replicate runs of Structure (that is, the Q matrix from Structure). The sums of the general mean and the residue of each observation from this regression were used as dependent variable for RF analysis. However, as Sitka spruce spans a wide latitudinal range, with latitude highly correlated with climatic variables, but is restricted to a narrow longitudinal range, population structure covaries strongly with climate gradients. The removal of the population structure may thus result in overadjustment (false-negatives) for the effect of local adaptation to climate. Therefore, phenotype prediction was conducted both with and without an adjustment for population structure.
For this analysis, 1500 regression trees were constructed in the model, although no further improvement was found after the number of trees increased to 1000. The model was initially run with all 339 SNPs as predictors (the full model), followed by runs using various numbers of selected SNPs based on their relative importance values to optimize the model. In previous studies, the importance value of each SNP assigned by the full model was used to rank the SNPs. However, as RF accounts for interactions, the ranking changes when the combination of the SNPs changes (i.e., adding or dropping one or more SNPs to the model). To consider the effect of interactions among the SNPs on phenotype prediction accuracy and on the ranking of their importance, we developed a backward purging approach to purge the least important SNP step by step. The minimum number of SNPs that can explain the maximum amount of variance in observed phenotypes was around 20. We thus applied this approach starting with a highly bifurcating model with the top-ranked 50 SNPs included to avoid excluding those SNPs with large interactions but insignificant main effects. At each step, the model run was repeated three times, and the SNP with the smallest importance value was eliminated from the model. The amount of variance explained by each successive model was averaged over the three runs. This step was repeated until there were only two SNPs remaining in the model (the minimum number of predictor variables that can be used).
To validate the effectiveness of our approach in selection of most important SNPs for the adaptive traits, we compared the effect of our selected SNPs on prediction of phenotypes with randomly selected SNPs. For this, RF model was run with bootstrap samples of SNPs (i.e. random combinations) with sample sizes of 2, 5, 10, 15, and 20 SNPs. These were referred to as ‘random’ models. The random sampling and model runs were repeated 10 times with each sample size, from which the average percentages of the amount of variance explained were calculated for each sample size. All RF analyses were performed using the R version of RF (Liaw and Wiener 2002).
Although RF accounts for epistasis without directly testing all possible pairwise combinations of loci, which is computationally efficient, it does not identify specific interacting SNPs. We have extended the method to enable direct testing of putatively interacting SNPs by removing SNPs with high importance values one-by-one and recalculating the importance values of remaining SNPs. If two SNPs interact, the absence of one of them would increase or decrease the importance values of the remaining SNP. Therefore, we can determine the amount and the direction (negative or positive) of the two-way interactions among important SNPs through examining the changes in their importance values when a SNP is removed from the model. We did this for each of the 20 most important SNPs to quantify both synergistic epistasis (i.e., when the importance of a SNP decreases upon removal of another SNP) and disruptive epistasis (i.e., when the importance value of a SNP increases upon removal of another SNP). This procedure was repeated five times, and the changes in the importance values were calculated for each locus in each run. The student's T-tests were applied to determine whether the changes in the importance values were significant. The P-values for the tests were adjusted for multiple testing using the qvalue package in R [http://www.r-project.org/ (Storey and Tibshirani 2003]. Tests quantifying interactions among SNPs were carried out only for the dataset with population structure removed. Interactions networks were displayed using Cytoscape software (Shannon et al. 2003).
To determine whether interacting SNPs were also in LD, we used our unphased genotypic data to calculate the probability that genotypes at pairs of loci are independent by using the composite LD test implemented in Genepop software (Rousset 2008). P-values obtained from this test were adjusted for the false-discovery rate (FDR).
When all 339 SNPs were used as predictors, RF explained 32.7% of the phenotypic variation in budset timing (Figure 1A). When budset dates were adjusted for population structure using multiple regressions before running RF, this value decreased to 24% (Figure 1B). The predictive value of the model improved when only the 20 most important SNPs were used as predictors, which were selected using the backward purging approach described in the Materials and Methods (Figure 1, C and D). The percentage of phenotypic variance explained (PVE) increased to 44.6% and 37.2% for the population unadjusted and adjusted models, respectively. Accounting for population structure had a more dramatic effect on prediction of cold injury, for which the unadjusted model accounted for 41.7% of variation, whereas the adjusted model accounted for only 22.5% (Figure 2, A and B). When only the top 20 SNPs were again selected, PVE was improved by 8.4% and 7.6% for the uncorrected and corrected models, respectively (Figure 2, C and 2D). These results are consistent with an increase in noise contributed by additional uninformative SNPs, which is reflected in negative importance values for a substantial fraction of the 339 SNPs for both budset (Figure 3A) and cold hardiness (Figure 3B).
The result of the backward purging approach suggests that for both budset and cold hardiness, the first three to five SNPs account for much of the variation, as PVE tended to reach a plateau with only incremental increases with the inclusion of additional SNPs (Figure 4, A and B, respectively). In contrast, randomly selected SNPs collectively had much less explanatory power (less than 5% in most cases) than the optimized models (Figure 4), a result consistent regardless of the number of SNPs from 2 to 20 included in the model.
Importance values for individual SNPs
Adjusting for population structure did not change the identity of the top two SNPs for budset, whereas for cold injury the top SNP before the adjustment decreased to fourth most important following population adjustment (data not shown). For budset, seven of the top 10 SNPs remained within the top 10 after adjustment for population structure, and all of the top 10 SNPs after adjustment were among the top 15 SNPs in the unadjusted model. For cold hardiness, eight of the top 10 SNPs were in common between the adjusted and unadjusted models, although the ranking changed in a few cases. The 10th most important SNP in the population adjusted model increased in importance from position 24 in the unadjusted model. Of the 339 predictor SNPs, 114 had negative importance values for the budset model (Figure 3A) and 105 had negative values for the cold hardiness model (Figure 3B).
Although RF and the mixed linear model (MLM), previously used by Holliday et al. (2010) to identify genotype-phenotype associations, assessed the explanatory power of our SNP markers in different ways, the concordance between the two methods was high for the SNPs with strongest associations with phenotype. This concordance broke down, however, beyond the top 10 SNPs. For budset timing, after adjustment for population structure, eight of the top 10 SNPs identified using RF were also significant using the MLM, whereas only two of the next 10 were in concordance with the MLM (Figure 5A). For cold hardiness, six of the top 10 SNPs and two of the next 10 from the RF analysis were also significant using the MLM (Figure 5B).
Tests for epistasis
By sequentially removing SNPs from the model and recalculating importance values for those that remained, we were able to quantify cases of both synergistic and antagonistic epistasis. We conducted this analysis using the top 20 SNPs based on importance values from the initial RF analysis with adjustment for population structure and followed by a backward purging approach described previously, and the resulting epistasis networks were plotted using Cytoscape (Figures 6 and 7) (Shannon et al. 2003). Numerous statistically significant interactions were identified among the top SNPs for each trait. A larger number of pairwise interactions were found for budset (45 interactions) than for cold hardiness (27 interactions). Interestingly, the SNPs with the highest importance values for both traits also were among the most highly connected in its respective network. For budset, per6 (573) had eight interactions, whereas for cold hardiness, xth1 (350) had five interactions. However, some SNPs with relatively small contributions to the model also exhibited high connectivity, including gp5 (98), which for cold hardiness had eight interactions. Conversely, the second most important SNP for budset had only one interaction.
Finally, we calculated genotypic linkage disequilibrium for each pair of interacting SNPs. For budset, 10 of 45 SNP pairs that exhibited significant epistatic interactions were also in linkage disequilibrium (Q < 0.05), and for cold hardiness, 13 of 27 interacting SNPs were in LD. Most interacting SNPs were found on different genes, and significant LD was therefore not likely due tight physical linkage in most cases, though our markers were not genetically mapped and we therefore do not know the physical proximity of the candidate genes. However, given the size of the spruce genome (∼18 Gb) (Ahuja and Neale 2005), it is likely that most interacting SNPs are separated by large physical distances or reside on different chromosomes.
We used RF to identify subsets of SNPs that provide the greatest power to predict adaptive phenotypes in the conifer Sitka spruce. This integrated approach revealed that only a few SNPs are needed to capture a large portion of the quantitative variation in adaptive traits, a finding is somewhat surprising because the conventional analysis of variance approach usually identifies a large number of SNPs that contribute relatively small amounts of variation to the phenotype (Eckert et al. 2009a, 2012; Quesada et al. 2010; Wegrzyn et al. 2010). A possible explanation for this difference would be the inclusion of interactions in the RF model used in this study. Specifically, with our backward purging approach, higher-order interactions are considered in reducing the number of SNPs in the model, and direct tests for epistasis showed that it is rampant among these SNPs. The role of interactions in predicting phenotypes has increasingly been recognized (Malmberg et al. 2005; von Korff et al. 2010; Pavlicev et al. 2011) although there are a paucity of data in plants. One study in Arabidopsis showed that the magnitude of epistatic effects on several fitness related traits was roughly double that of the effects of the additive QTL (Malmberg et al. 2005). Our results advance an empirical understanding of how populations may adapt to local climate across many loci and should facilitate the screening of climatically relevant adaptive variation in natural, breeding and deployment populations, and to developing species-specific genetic resource management and conservation strategies.
A small number of SNPs are sufficient to explain much of the variation in adaptive traits in Sitka spruce
Many temperate and boreal plant species have expanded from glacial refugia to occupy wide latitudinal ranges in a relatively short period of time, on the order of 10−15,000 years. Such expansions necessitate ongoing adaptation to novel climates, which for annual plants is not difficult to envision due to their short generation time. However, long-lived tree species present somewhat of an adaptive paradox in that they have a delay until reproductive maturity resulting in a generation time on the order of 20 to 50 years or longer, depending on ecological disturbance or harvesting rotations (Petit and Hampe 2006). This presents two impediments to local adaptation, namely, a lower effective mutation rate and fewer opportunities for allele frequency adjustments. How then have long-lived tree species been able to expand their ranges so rapidly while simultaneously tracking relative phenotypic optima so closely? Our results suggest that although the average effect of individual SNPs on trait variance is small, the genetic architecture of these traits is clearly finite. Of course, this study only accounts for a small fraction of the segregating variation present in the genome of spruce, and future work that capitalizes on next generation sequencing technologies will no doubt improve on the model we developed here.
It should be noted that the variation we explain with this sample, as is the case in many genotype−phenotype association studies of natural tree species, comprises both within and among-population components. Hence, the relevant measure of quantitative genetic variance with which to compare our model is QST (the proportion of phenotypic variation attributable to differentiation among populations), which in Sitka spruce for the same populations was reported to be ∼0.89 for both cold hardiness and budset (Mimura and Aitken 2007). Our RF model therefore explains on the order of a third to a half of the variation present in the studied collection of populations. Adjusting for population structure reduced the explanatory power of the SNPs. Although it was necessary to make this adjustment to avoid false positives, Sitka spruce has a very wide latitudinal range but is essentially restricted to coastal habitat, and population structure in this species covaries with selective pressures related to climate. As such, removing the effect of population structure inevitably removes some of the SNP effects of interest, and hence reduces explanatory power (Myles et al. 2009). Taken together, our results would seem to support modern refinements of Fisher’s geometric model of adaptation, which emphasizes the importance of a few mutations of moderate effect and many mutations of small effect (Orr 1998, 1999). We have previously shown that SNPs with phenotypic associations in this study segregate in most populations throughout the range of Sitka spruce, including populations well south of the maximum extent of glaciation, and they are therefore likely to be evolutionarily old (Holliday et al. 2010). Adaptation to anthropogenic climate change in this species may therefore proceed largely from standing variants, and our results suggest this adaptation may involve fewer loci than is often assumed by the infinitesimal model underlying classical quantitative genetics (Barrett and Schluter 2008). If this is the case, allele frequency adjustments within the loci described here, coupled with realistic migration rates and epistasis, may provide the means for tree populations to track the rapidly changing phenotypic optimums imposed by climate change.
Epistasis shapes adaptive traits in Sitka spruce
Phenotypes are the product of both genotype and environment according to the central dogma of quantitative genetics, and it is the goal of association genetics to localize genotypic effects while holding environment constant, as in a common garden. These genotypic effects can be further broken down into additive, dominance, and epistatic components. The first two effects can be easily tested in a conventional association analysis, but the computational burden of testing all possible pairwise and higher-order interactions limits our ability to determine the relative contribution of SNP-SNP interactions to complex trait variation. We took a novel three-stage approach to reduce the dimensionality of the data and directly test for epistasis. First, we built a model that took all 339 SNPs as possible predictors. Second, we paired this model down to include only the 20 SNPs with the highest importance values through a backward purging approach. Finally, we iteratively removed individual SNPs and recalculated the importance values of those that remained. This allowed us to build an interaction network describing both the strength and direction of pairwise interactions between adaptive SNPs. The principle behind this approach is that RF assigns an importance value to each SNP based on its contribution to the model either through its main or interactive effect, or both. Therefore, when the model is paired down to a smaller number of SNPs through the backward purging approach, the SNPs remained in the model represent the most important SNPs contributing to the phenotype. If a SNP interacts with other SNPs, the removal of this SNP will affect the importance values of the interacting SNPs. If the importance value of an interacting SNP is reduced, it suggests a positive interaction. Otherwise, the interaction is negative. However, because the magnitude of the interaction is determined based on the change in the importance values rather than the effect on the phenotype as estimated with traditional methods, these interactions only represent the relative importance of the epistasis.
Somewhat surprisingly, all 20 of the most important SNPs for budset and 16 of 20 for cold injury exhibited at least one interaction. This result might be attributable to the backward purging approach we applied because it considered the effect of all levels of interactions for a SNP being removed from the model, which is different from other approaches reported (Jiang et al. 2009; Chen et al. 2011). SNPs with the highest importance values (and which were significant in the mixed model association tests) for each trait tended to have more interactions than those with lower importance values. One strategy that has been used in the search for epistasis is to specify tests for interactions only among those SNPs with significant univariate associations. Our results suggest that this approach is likely to capture some of the genetic interactions relevant to complex trait variation, but would miss many interactions involving SNPs with no significant main effect. Although we only dealt with the top 20 SNPs from the RF analysis in our tests for epistasis, this is an arbitrary cutoff that could be relaxed to achieve a more comprehensive view of the interaction network governing complex traits.
Linkage disequilibrium between interacting loci
Epistasis is expected to produce stable LD between interacting loci (Feldman et al. 1980; Otto and Feldman 1997). Although LD may also be generated by demographic phenomena such as migration, genetic drift, and single-locus selection (Wade et al. 2001), background levels of LD are low in most widespread tree species (Krutovsky and Neale 2005; Gonzalez-Martinez et al. 2006a; Eckert et al. 2009b). As such, LD between putatively interacting SNPs, particularly for intergenic interactions, provides additional evidence of bona fide epistasis. We therefore sought to determine whether putatively interacting SNPs in our study were also in linkage disequilibrium with one another. After correcting for multiple testing, we found that many, although not all, interacting SNPs exhibited LD. Interestingly, all but one of the interacting SNP pairs that also exhibited LD were positive interactions. This result reinforces the finding that negative epistasis promotes recombination, which in turn breaks down LD (Otto and Feldman 1997).
Although most SNPs in this study represented individual genetic loci presumably separated by some physical distance, and likely on different chromosomes in many cases (though we have no genetic map with which to test this assumption), there were a few cases of adjacent SNPs from the same gene among the top 20 in terms of importance values. One of the strongest interactions was for cold hardiness, between two SNPs separated by only 61bp in the xth1 gene (SNPs 289 and 350). Each of these SNPs, as well as two others within xth1, were significantly associated with both budset and cold hardiness and explained between 3% and 5% of the variation in these traits (Holliday et al. 2010). Given the close physical proximity of these SNPs, we initially considered the possibility that LD was driving the associations, leading to a high PVE for all the SNPs adjacent to the quantitative trait nucleotide. However, given the strong epistasis for the two SNPs described above, as well as between SNPs 199 and 289 for budset, it appears more likely that each of these SNPs shape the phenotypic traits, alone and in combination. This result is not without precedent: previous studies have identified intragenic epistasis (da Silva et al. 2010), and in one case, conformational changes in the protein products were directly linked to epistasis between allelic variants within the relevant gene (Ortlund et al. 2007).
This study represents a significant step toward the goal of a comprehensive description of the genomic basis of local adaptation in widely distributed plant species in general, and conifer trees in particular. We conclude that dimensionality reduction using RF, coupled with iterative tests for pairwise interactions, is an efficient and fairly comprehensive approach to uncover SNPs and their interactions that shape adaptive traits, and this approach should be broadly applicable to other systems. The identification of a suite of markers that collectively explain a substantial fraction of the phenotypic variation in budset and cold hardiness in Sitka spruce provides an important resource for the conservation of genetic resources present in wild populations of spruce species, and prediction of ability to adapt to new climates. Future extensions of the RF approach may include the search for interpopulation allelic covariance that some theoretical and empirical work suggests may be responsible for high population differentiation in adaptive traits found in many tree species (Latta 1998; Le Corre and Kremer 2003; Ma et al. 2010; Kremer and Le Corre 2011; Le Corre and Kremer 2012). In trees, high QST is often accompanied by low FST (i.e., low genetic differentiation among populations), a result of high pollen-mediated gene flow, and this apparent paradox has yet to be reconciled by so-called FST-outlier approaches that search for markers with unusually high levels of differentiation relative to the neutral distribution. Kremer and Le Corre (2011) show that in such situations, adaptation is likely the result of covariance between alleles at many loci, leading to strong clines in quantitative traits where clines in the underlying adaptive SNPs are weak and indistinguishable from the neutral distribution of FST. Identifying allelic covariance among many possible candidate SNPs is a challenge, and the RF approach could be used to pare down the list of possible allelic combinations that lead to advantageous trait values for different populations. Such an analysis would likely be most successful if relative fitness were used as the response variable rather than the adaptive phenotypes themselves, since the optimal trait value for a given environment would not be known.
We thank the two reviewers for helpful comments on a previous version of this manuscript. This work was supported by Genome British Columbia, Genome Canada, and the Province of British Columbia (funding proposals by S.A., J.A.H., and T.W.), by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC; grant to S.A.), by an NSERC Postgraduate Scholarship to J.A.H, and by Virginia Tech ‘Startup Funds’ to J.A.H.
Supporting information is available online at http://www.g3journal.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1534/g3.112.002733/-/DC1
Communicating editor: R. W. Doerge
- Received April 8, 2012.
- Accepted July 3, 2012.
- Copyright © 2012 Holliday et al.
This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Unported License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.