Occurrence of alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) populations along roadsides in southern Manitoba, Canada and their potential role in intraspecific gene flow.
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Alfalfa is a highly outcrossing perennial species that can be noticed in roadsides as feral populations. There remains little information available on the extent of feral alfalfa populations in western Canadian prairies and their role in gene flow. The main objectives of this study were (a) to document the occurrence of feral alfalfa populations, and (b) to estimate the levels of outcrossing facilitated by feral populations. A roadside survey confirmed widespread occurrence of feral alfalfa populations, particularly in alfalfa growing regions. The feral populations were dynamic and their frequency ranged from 0.2 to 1.7 populations km(-1). In many cases, the nearest feral alfalfa population from alfalfa production field was located within a distance sufficient for outcrossing in alfalfa. The gene flow study confirmed that genes can move back and forth between feral and cultivated alfalfa populations. In this study, the estimated outcrossing levels were 62% (seed fields to feral), 78% (feral to seed fields), 82% (hay fields to feral) and 85% (feral to feral). Overall, the results show that feral alfalfa plants are prevalent in alfalfa producing regions in western Canada and they can serve as bridges for gene flow at landscape level. Management of feral populations should be considered, if gene flow is a concern. Emphasis on preventing seed spill/escapes and intentional roadside planting of alfalfa cultivars will be particularly helpful. Further, realistic and pragmatic threshold levels should be established for markets sensitive to the presence of GE traits.