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Phylogenetic evidence for an animal pathogen origin of ergot and the grass endophytes


Joseph W. Spatafora, Fax: 1-541-737-3573; E-mail:


Grass-associated fungi (grass symbionts) in the family Clavicipitaceae (Ascomycota, Hypocreales) are species whose host range is restricted to the plant family Poaceae and rarely Cyperaceae. The best-characterized species include Claviceps purpurea (ergot of rye) and Neotyphodium coenophialum (endophyte of tall fescue). They have been the focus of considerable research due to their importance in agricultural and grassland ecosystems and the diversity of their bioactive secondary metabolites. Here we show through multigene phylogenetic analyses and ancestral character state reconstruction that the grass symbionts in Clavicipitaceae are a derived group that originated from an animal pathogen through a dynamic process of interkingdom host jumping. The closest relatives of the grass symbionts include the genera Hypocrella, a pathogen of scale insects and white flies, and Metarhizium, a generalist arthropod pathogen. These data do not support the monophyly of Clavicipitaceae, but place it as part of a larger clade that includes Hypocreaceae, a family that contains mainly parasites of other fungi. A minimum of 5–8 independent and unidirectional interkingdom host jumps has occurred among clavicipitaceous fungi, including 3–5 to fungi, 1–2 to animals, and 1 to plants. These findings provide a new evolutionary context for studying the biology of the grass symbionts, their role in plant ecology, and the evolution of host affiliation in fungal symbioses.