, Volume 60, Issue 3, pp 496-504

Asexual Endophytes in a Native Grass: Tradeoffs in Mortality, Growth, Reproduction, and Alkaloid Production

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Abstract

Neotyphodium endophytes are asexual, seed-borne fungal symbionts that are thought to interact mutualistically with their grass hosts. Benefits include increased growth, reproduction, and resistance to herbivores via endophytic alkaloids. Although these benefits are well established in infected introduced, agronomic grasses, little is known about the cost and benefits of endophyte infection in native grass populations. These populations exist as mosaics of uninfected and infected plants, with the latter often comprised of plants that vary widely in alkaloid content. We tested the costs and benefits of endophyte infections with varying alkaloids in the native grass Achnatherum robustum (sleepygrass). We conducted a 4-year field experiment, where herbivory and water availability were controlled and survival, growth, and reproduction of three maternal plant genotypes [uninfected plants (E−), infected plants with high levels of ergot alkaloids (E+A+), and infected plants with no alkaloids (E+A−)] were monitored over three growing seasons. Generally, E+A+ plants had reduced growth over the three growing seasons and lower seed production than E− or E+A− plants, suggesting a cost of alkaloid production. The reduction in vegetative biomass in E+A+ plants was most pronounced under supplemented water, contrary to the prediction that additional resources would offset the cost of alkaloid production. Also, E+A+ plants showed no advantage in growth, seed production, or reproductive effort under full herbivory relative to E− or E+A− grasses, contrary to the predictions of the defensive mutualism hypothesis. However, E+A+ plants had higher overwintering survival than E+A− plants in early plant ontogeny, suggesting that alkaloids associated with infection may protect against below ground herbivory or harsh winter conditions. Our results suggest that the mosaic of E−, E+A+, and E+A− plants observed in nature may result from varying biotic and abiotic selective factors that maintain the presence of uninfected plants and infected plants that vary in alkaloid production.