Endophyte infection of Festuca eskia enhances seedling survival to drought and cutting at the expense of clonal expansion

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Abstract

Aims

Symbiotic relationships between fungal endophytes and grass species are known to increase stress resistance in the grass host; however, there is little evidence to suggest that the positive effects occur early in the grass life cycle. In this study, we explored the effects of the endophyte Epichloë festucae on the growth and survival of Festuca eskia seedlings under drought and frequent cutting stress.

Methods

Festuca eskia seedlings were collected from the western part of the plant repartition area in a non-symbiotic population located in a mesic and heavily grazed site (W-NS) and from the eastern part in a symbiotic population from a xeric and lightly grazed site (E-S). The E-S population was experimentally freed from its endophyte (E-F). Two greenhouse experiments were conducted to compare growth and survival between the three seedling types under drought stress and frequent cutting. In the first experiment, 126 seedlings per seedling type (n = 378) were grown for 6 weeks under non-limiting conditions before the cessation of watering. After 3 weeks without irrigation, full irrigation was restored for 10 days to measure the survival rate. Leaf length, leaf elongation rate and survival rate were assessed per population. In the second experiment, 156 seedlings per seedling type (n = 468) were grown under non-limiting conditions. All seedlings were cut to 3 cm high, twice a week, during the first month of growth. Leaf elongation and tillering were monitored on 52 seedlings per seedling type. For each type, seedling survival rate was determined by the number of plants alive after 10 days of regrowth, without cutting.

Important Findings

The drought experiment revealed a phenotypic differentiation to drought in 30 F. eskia populations, suggesting adaptive differentiation: the eastern seedlings showed the highest survival rate. A trade-off between growth and survival was highlighted: the highest drought survival rate was associated with the lowest leaf elongation rate under non-limiting water conditions. Endophyte presence in the eastern population increased seedling drought survival. In contrast, cutting survival rate was similar between W-NS and E-S because the presence of the endophyte increased seedling survival to frequent cutting. However, this positive effect came with a cost: the endophyte reduced seedling tillering rate.

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