Hybridization in Endophyte Symbionts Alters Host Response to Moisture and Nutrient Treatments
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When a host organism is infected by a symbiont, the resulting symbiotum has a phenotype distinct from uninfected hosts. Genotypic interactions between the partners may increase phenotypic variation of the host at the population level. Neotyphodium is an asexual, vertically transmitted endophytic symbiont of grasses often existing in hybrid form. Hybridization in Neotyphodium rapidly increases the symbiotum’s genomic content and is likely to increase the phenotypic variation of the host. This phenotypic variation is predicted to enhance host performance, especially in stressful environments. We tested this hypothesis by comparing the growth, survival, and resource allocation of hybrid and nonhybrid infected host plants exposed to controlled variation in soil moisture and nutrients. Infection by a hybrid endophyte did not fit our predictions of comparatively higher root and total biomass production under low moisture/low nutrient treatments. Regardless of whether the host was infected by a hybrid or nonhybrid endophyte, both produced significantly higher root/total biomass when both nutrient and moisture were high compared to limited nutrient/moisture treatments. However, infection by hybrid Neotyphodium did result in significantly higher total biomass and host survival compared to nonhybrid infected hosts, regardless of treatment. Endophyte hybridization alters host strategies in response to stress by increasing survival in depauperate habitats and thus, potentially increasing the relative long-term host fitness.