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Mutation in a single gene switches a fungus-grass symbiosis from mutualistic to antagonistic

A symbiotic relationship is one in which two organisms of different species interact in ways that profoundly affect their livelihoods and reproductive success. Such interactions range from mutually beneficial to antagonistic and are considered to be of major ecological and evolutionary importance in shaping plant and animal communities. Examples of beneficial symbioses include the microbes that live in the guts of herbivorous mammals like cows and help to digest cellulose, ants that protect plants from herbivores, and the fig wasps that pollinate fig trees by depositing their eggs in the fig flowers, which their larvae then feed on. Plants participate in numerous symbiotic associations. Examples include the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in plant roots, the fungus-alga association that makes up lichens, and grasses and endophytic fungi (fungi that live inside the leaves, stems, and other structures of the plant).

Fungal endophytes in the genus Epichlo form symbiotic associations with many grasses. Studies have shown that Epichlo endophytes can result in enhanced biomass production, seed production, and root growth of the grass plants as well as improved recovery after drought compared to plants without endophytes. Like other endophytes, the symbioses of grass species with Epichlo fungi can be mutualistic or antagonistic or both. In the beneficial interactions, Epichlo endophytes are strictly limited in their intercellular growth throughout the plant. The growth of the endophyte is synchronized with that of the grass; fungal hyphae grow actively in expanding leaves but cease to grow as the leaf matures.

Aiko Tanaka, Daigo Takemotot and Barry Scott at the Centre for Functional Genomics at Massey University in New Zealand; Michael Christensen at the Grasslands Research Centre, also in New Zealand, and Pyoyun Park at the Graduate School of Science and Technology at Kobe University, Japan, studied the interaction of the fungal endophyte Epi
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Contact: Beatrice Grabowski
beatrice@aspb.org
301-251-0560
American Society of Plant Biologists
22-Mar-2006


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