The effects of genetic and environmental factors on disease expression (stroma formation) and plant growth in Brachypodium sylvaticum infected by Epichloë sylvatica


  • Gerrit Meijer,

  • Adrian Leuchtmann

G. Meijer and A. Leuchtmann (correspondence), Geobotanisches Institut, ETH-Zürich, Zollikerstrasse 107, CH-8008 Zürich, Switzerland (


Fungi in the genus Epichloë (Clavicipitaceae, Ascomycota) are endophytic and often mutualistic symbionts of many grasses in temperate areas. Species with a sexual cycle suppress host flowering and seed formation, whereas asexual fungi remain asymptomatic and transmit vertically by seed. Thus, the mode of reproduction may determine whether the symbiosis is mutualistic or parasitic. The level of sexual reproduction (disease expression) varies among different endophytes and on different grass hosts, but factors responsible for this variation, and evolutionary mechanisms leading to one or the other life strategy are not understood. As experimental system, we chose Brachypodium sylvaticum in which the endophyte E. sylvatica can express both reproduction modes. A field experiment was done in plots of a free air carbon dioxide enrichment (FACE) facility. We investigated the effects of three environmental factors (elevated CO2 concentration, shading and fertilisation) and one genetic factor (plant and fungal genotype combination), on plant growth and disease expression. Variation in plant growth was mainly dependant on the genotype and was increased by fertilisation. Elevated CO2 and shading slightly stimulated plant growth, but only in fertilised plants. Disease expression was overwhelmingly dependent on the genotype, hence genetic factors. Fertilisation slightly stimulated disease expression in some genotypes, while the effect of elevated CO2 was negligible, and by interaction with fertilisation inconsistent in the two years. Horizontal transmissions during the experiment, presumably mediated by ascospores, confounded the original infection status of the plants. Contagious infections occurred more frequently in the shade, and in endophyte-free host plants. The latter suggests that pre-existing infections render host plants less susceptible to superinfection by choke forming strains. Although our results clearly indicate that disease expression of E. sylvatica has a genetic basis, it is still unclear whether selection on the plants or the fungi is driving the evolution of this association.