Unprecedented levels of fungal endophyte diversity have been found in tropical forest grasses on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, by A. E. Arnold and colleagues. Unlike for temperate and crop grasses, these fungi are generalists. Because grasses first appeared in tropical forests, these relationships shed light on the evolution of endophytism [article link]
Most studies examining endophytic fungi associated with grasses (Poaceae) have focused on agronomically important species in managed ecosystems or on wild grasses in subtropical, temperate and boreal grasslands. However grasses first arose in tropical forests, where they remain a significant and diverse component of understory and forest-edge communities. To provide a broader context for understanding grass-endophyte associations we characterized fungal endophyte communities inhabiting foliage of 11 species of phylogenetically diverse C3 grasses in the understory of a lowland tropical forest at Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Our sample included members of early-arising subfamilies of Poaceae that are endemic to forests, as well as more recently arising subfamilies that transitioned to open environments.Isolation on culture media and direct PCR and cloning revealed that these grasses harbor species-rich and phylogenetically diverse communities that lack the endophytic Clavicipitaceae known from diverse woodland and pasture grasses in the temperate zone. Both the incidence and diversity of endophytes was consistent among grass species regardless of subfamily, clade affiliation or ancestral habitat use. Genotype and phylogenetic analyses suggest that these endophytic fungi are predominantly host generalists, shared not only among distinctive lineages of Poaceae but also with non-grass plants at the same site.