Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 118 (4) e2022620118 [2021-01-26; online 2021-01-23]
The relative role of genetic adaptation and phenotypic plasticity is of fundamental importance in evolutionary ecology [M. J. West-Eberhard, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 102 (suppl. 1), 6543-6549 (2005)]. European eels have a complex life cycle, including transitions between life stages across ecological conditions in the Sargasso Sea, where spawning occurs, and those in brackish and freshwater bodies from northern Europe to northern Africa. Whether continental eel populations consist of locally adapted and genetically distinct populations or comprise a single panmictic population has received conflicting support. Here we use whole-genome sequencing and show that European eels belong to one panmictic population. A complete lack of geographical genetic differentiation is demonstrated. We postulate that this is possible because the most critical life stages-spawning and embryonic development-take place under near-identical conditions in the Sargasso Sea. We further show that within-generation selection, which has recently been proposed as a mechanism for genetic adaptation in eels, can only marginally change allele frequencies between cohorts of eels from different geographic regions. Our results strongly indicate plasticity as the predominant mechanism for how eels respond to diverse environmental conditions during postlarval stages, ultimately solving a long-standing question for a classically enigmatic species.