Molecular characterisation and interpretation of genetic diversity within globally distributed germplasm collections of tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea Schreb.) and meadow fescue (F. pratensis Huds.)
Allohexaploid tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea Schreb. syn. Lolium arundinaceum [Schreb.] Darbysh.) is an agriculturally important grass cultivated for pasture and turf world-wide. Genetic improvement of tall fescue could benefit from the use of non-domesticated germplasm to diversify breeding populations through the incorporation of novel and superior allele content. However, such potential germplasm must first be characterised, as three major morphotypes (Continental, Mediterranean and rhizomatous) with varying degrees of hybrid interfertility are commonly described within this species. As hexaploid tall fescue is also a member of a polyploid species complex that contains tetraploid, octoploid and decaploid taxa, it is also possible that germplasm collections may have inadvertently sampled some of these sub-species. In this study, 1,040 accessions from the publicly available United States Department of Agriculture tall fescue and meadow fescue germplasm collections were investigated. Sequence of the chloroplast genome-located matK gene and the nuclear ribosomal DNA internal transcribed spacer (rDNA ITS) permitted attribution of accessions to the three previously known morphotypes and also revealed the presence of tall fescue sub-species of varying ploidy levels, as well as other closely related species. The majority of accessions were, however, identified as Continental hexaploid tall fescue. Analysis using 34 simple sequence repeat markers was able to further investigate the level of genetic diversity within each hexaploid tall fescue morphotype group. At least two genetically distinct sub-groups of Continental hexaploid tall fescue were identified which are probably associated with palaeogeographic range expansion of this morphotype. This work has comprehensively characterised a large and complex germplasm collection and has identified genetically diverse accessions which may potentially contribute valuable alleles at agronomic loci for tall fescue cultivar improvement programs.