Genetic variability in 10 natural Tunisian populations of Medicago laciniata were analysed using 19 quantitative traits and 12 polymorphic microsatellite loci. A large degree of genetic variability within-populations and among-populations was detected for both quantitative characters and molecular markers. High genetic differentiation among populations for quantitative traits was seen, with Q(ST) = 0.47, and F(ST) = 0.47 for microsatellite markers. Several quantitative traits displayed no statistical difference in the levels of Q(ST) and F(ST). Further, significant correlations between quantitative traits and eco-geographical factors suggest that divergence in the traits among populations may track environmental differences. There was no significant correlation between genetic variability at quantitative traits and microsatellite markers within populations. The site-of-origin of eco-geographical factors explain between 18.13% and 23.40% of genetic variance among populations at quantitative traits and microsatellite markers, respectively. The environmental factors that most influence variation in measured traits among populations are assimilated phosphorus (P(2)0(5)) and mean annual rainfall, followed by climate and soil texture, altitude and organic matter. Significant associations between eco-geographical factors and gene diversity, He, were established in five microsatellite loci suggesting that these simple sequence repeats (SSRs) are not necessarily biologically neutral.
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