Epigenetic information includes heritable signals that modulate gene expression but are not encoded in the primary nucleotide sequence. We have studied natural epigenetic variation in three allotetraploid sibling orchid species (Dactylorhiza majalis s.str, D. traunsteineri s.l., and D. ebudensis) that differ radically in geography/ecology. The epigenetic variation released by genome doubling has been restructured in species-specific patterns that reflect their recent evolutionary history and have an impact on their ecology and evolution, hundreds of generations after their formation. Using two contrasting approaches that yielded largely congruent results, epigenome scans pinpointed epiloci under divergent selection that correlate with eco-environmental variables, mainly related to water availability and temperature. The stable epigenetic divergence in this group is largely responsible for persistent ecological differences, which then set the stage for species-specific genetic patterns to accumulate in response to further selection and/or drift. Our results strongly suggest a need to expand our current evolutionary framework to encompass a complementary epigenetic dimension when seeking to understand population processes that drive phenotypic evolution and adaptation.
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