Journal Article

Genetic variation of piperidine alkaloids in <i>Pinus ponderosa</i>: a common garden study

Elizabeth A. Gerson, Rick G. Kelsey and J. Bradley St Clair

in Annals of Botany

Published on behalf of The Annals of Botany Company

Volume 103, issue 3, pages 447-457
Published in print February 2009 | ISSN: 0305-7364
Published online November 2008 | e-ISSN: 1095-8290 | DOI:
Genetic variation of piperidine alkaloids in Pinus ponderosa: a common garden study

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  • Ecology and Conservation
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Plant Sciences and Forestry


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Background and Aims

Previous measurements of conifer alkaloids have revealed significant variation attributable to many sources, environmental and genetic. The present study takes a complementary and intensive, common garden approach to examine genetic variation in Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa alkaloid production. Additionally, this study investigates the potential trade-off between seedling growth and alkaloid production, and associations between topographic/climatic variables and alkaloid production.


Piperidine alkaloids were quantified in foliage of 501 nursery seedlings grown from seed sources in west-central Washington, Oregon and California, roughly covering the western half of the native range of ponderosa pine. A nested mixed model was used to test differences among broad-scale regions and among families within regions. Alkaloid concentrations were regressed on seedling growth measurements to test metabolite allocation theory. Likewise, climate characteristics at the seed sources were also considered as explanatory variables.

Key Results

Quantitative variation from seedling to seedling was high, and regional variation exceeded variation among families. Regions along the western margin of the species range exhibited the highest alkaloid concentrations, while those further east had relatively low alkaloid levels. Qualitative variation in alkaloid profiles was low. All measures of seedling growth related negatively to alkaloid concentrations on a natural log scale; however, coefficients of determination were low. At best, annual height increment explained 19·4 % of the variation in ln(total alkaloids). Among the climate variables, temperature range showed a negative, linear association that explained 41·8 % of the variation.


Given the wide geographic scope of the seed sources and the uniformity of resources in the seedlings' environment, observed differences in alkaloid concentrations are evidence for genetic regulation of alkaloid secondary metabolism in ponderosa pine. The theoretical trade-off with seedling growth appeared to be real, however slight. The climate variables provided little evidence for adaptive alkaloid variation, especially within regions.

Keywords: Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa; Pinaceae; 2,6-disubstituted piperidine alkaloids; secondary products; geographic variation; progeny study; plant defense; Growth–Differentiation Balance Hypothesis; PRISM

Journal Article.  7807 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Ecology and Conservation ; Evolutionary Biology ; Plant Sciences and Forestry

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