Endolichenic fungi live in close association with algal photobionts inside asymptomatic lichen thalli and resemble fungal endophytes of plants in terms of taxonomy, diversity, transmission mode, and evolutionary history. This similarity has led to uncertainty regarding the distinctiveness of endolichenic fungi compared with endophytes. Here, we evaluate whether these fungi represent distinct ecological guilds or a single guild of flexible symbiotrophs capable of colonizing plants or lichens indiscriminately. Culturable fungi were sampled exhaustively from replicate sets of phylogenetically diverse plants and lichens in three microsites in a montane forest in southeastern Arizona (USA). Intensive sampling combined with a small spatial scale permitted us to decouple spatial heterogeneity from host association and to sample communities from living leaves, dead leaves, and lichen thalli to statistical completion. Characterization using data from the nuclear ribosomal internal transcribed spacer and partial large subunit (ITS-LSU rDNA) provided a first estimation of host and substrate use for 960 isolates representing five classes and approximately 16 orders, 32 families, and 65 genera of Pezizomycotina. We found that fungal communities differ at a broad taxonomic level as a function of the phylogenetic placement of their plant or lichen hosts. Endolichenic fungal assemblages differed as a function of lichen taxonomy, rather than substrate, growth form, or photobiont. In plants, fungal communities were structured more by plant lineage than by the living vs. senescent status of the leaf. We found no evidence that endolichenic fungi are saprotrophic fungi that have been "entrapped" by lichen thalli. Instead, our study reveals the distinctiveness of endolichenic communities relative to those in living and dead plant tissues, with one notable exception: we identify, for the first time, an ecologically flexible group of symbionts that occurs both as endolichenic fungi and as endophytes of mosses.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Soil Science