Genetic patterns in range-edge populations of Vaccinium species from the central Balkans: implications on conservation prospects and sustainable usage
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Vaccinium myrtillus L., Vaccinium uliginosum L. and Vaccinium vitis-idaea L. are perennial, cold-adapted clonal shrubs distributed throughout Europe, northern Asia and North America. Due to their usage in food (berries) and pharmaceutical industry (berries and leaves), their natural populations are exposed to anthropogenic and other impacts that affect their genetic make-up. We analyzed 14 fragmentary distributed and small-sized peripheral populations of these species from the Balkans, which represents the southeastern-European marginal area of their wide European distributions, using RAPD molecular markers. The contemporary genetic patterns in all three species within the Balkans were generally similar, and in comparison to previous reports on populations of these species found in northward Europe, where they have a more continuous distribution, the levels of genetic diversity were more or less halved, genetic differentiation was several times higher, gene flow exceptionally low, and the expected prevalence of clonal individuals was lacking. The population dynamics of all three species within the Balkans was complex and distinct, and was characterized by a past admixture of individuals from discrete populations of the same species and interspecific hybridisation not only between V. myrtillus and V. vitis-idaea but also between V. uliginosum and V. vitis-idaea, the latter not being reported to date. Conservation measures suitable for preservation of presumably genetically distinct portions of the Balkans' gene pools of studied species have been suggested, while the utility of interspecific hybrids in breeding programs and/or in food/pharmaceutical industry is yet to be assessed.