Effects of elevated CO2, nitrogen deposition, and decreased species diversity on foliar fungal plant disease


Charles Mitchell, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14850, USA, tel. +718 607 254 4235, fax +718 607 255 8088, e-mail: cem46@cornell.edu


Three components of global change, elevated CO2, nitrogen addition, and decreased plant species richness (‘diversity’), increased the percent leaf area infected by fungi (pathogen load) for much to all of the plant community in one year of a factorial grassland experiment. Decreased plant diversity had the broadest effect, increasing pathogen load across the plant community. Decreased diversity increased pathogen load primarily by allowing remaining plant species to increase in abundance, facilitating spread of foliar fungal pathogens specific to each plant species. Changes in plant species composition also strongly influenced community pathogen load, with communities that lost less disease prone plant species increasing more in pathogen load. Elevated CO2 increased pathogen load of C3 grasses, perhaps by decreasing water stress, increasing leaf longevity, and increasing photosynthetic rate, all of which can promote foliar fungal disease. Decreased plant diversity further magnified the increase in C3 grass pathogen load under elevated CO2. Nitrogen addition increased pathogen load of C4 grasses by increasing foliar nitrogen concentration, which can enhance pathogen infection, growth, and reproduction. Because changes in foliar fungal pathogen load can strongly influence grassland ecosystem processes, our study suggests that increased pathogen load can be an important mechanism by which global change affects grassland ecosystems.