Traits along the leaf economics spectrum are associated with communities of foliar endophytic symbionts

Peter H. Tellez, A. Elizabeth Arnold, Ashton B. Leo, Kaoru Kitajima, Sunshine A. Van Bael

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Leaf traits of plants worldwide are classified according to the Leaf Economics Spectrum (LES), which links leaf functional traits to evolutionary life history strategies. As a continuum ranging from thicker, tough leaves that are low in nitrogen (N) to thinner, softer, leaves that are high in N, the LES brings together physical, chemical, and ecological traits. Fungal endophytes are common foliar symbionts that occur in healthy, living leaves, especially in tropical forests. Their community composition often differs among co-occurring host species in ways that cannot be explained by environmental conditions or host phylogenetic relationships. Here, we tested the over-arching hypothesis that LES traits act as habitat filters that shape communities of endophytes both in terms of composition, and in terms of selecting for endophytes with particular suites of functional traits. We used culture-based and culture-free surveys to characterize foliar endophytes in mature leaves of 30 phylogenetically diverse plant species with divergent LES traits in lowland Panama, and then measured functional traits of dominant endophyte taxa in vitro. Endophytes were less abundant and less diverse in thick, tough, leaves compared to thin, softer, leaves in the same forest, even in closely related plants. Endophyte communities differed according to leaf traits, including leaf punch strength and carbon and nitrogen content. The most common endophyte taxa in leaves at different ends of the LES differ in their cellulase, protease, chitinase, and antipathogen activity. Our results extend the LES framework for the first time to diverse and ecologically important endophytes, opening new hypotheses regarding the degree to which foliar symbionts respond to, and extend, the functional traits of leaves they inhabit.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number927780
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
StatePublished - Jul 28 2022


  • Ascomycota
  • endophytic fungi
  • leaf functional traits
  • symbiosis
  • tropical forest

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)


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