Adaptive Introgression: An Untapped Evolutionary Mechanism for Crop Adaptation

Global environmental changes strongly impact wild and domesticated species biology and their associated ecosystem services. For crops, global warming has led to significant changes in terms of phenology and/or yield. To respond to the agricultural challenges of this century, there is a strong need for harnessing the genetic variability of crops and adapting them to new conditions. Gene flow, from either the same species or a different species, may be an immediate primary source to widen genetic diversity and adaptions to various environments. When the incorporation of a foreign variant leads to an increase of the fitness of the recipient pool, it is referred to as “adaptive introgression”. Crop species are excellent case studies of this phenomenon since their genetic variability has been considerably reduced over space and time but most of them continue exchanging genetic material with their wild relatives. In this paper, we review studies of adaptive introgression, presenting methodological approaches and challenges to detecting it. We pay particular attention to the potential of this evolutionary mechanism for the adaptation of crops. Furthermore, we discuss the importance of farmers’ knowledge and practices in shaping wild-to-crop gene flow. Finally, we argue that screening the wild introgression already existing in the cultivated gene pool may be an effective strategy for uncovering wild diversity relevant for crop adaptation to current environmental changes and for informing new breeding directions.