DIVERSITY AND HOST RANGE OF FOLIAR FUNGAL ENDOPHYTES: ARE TROPICAL LEAVES BIODIVERSITY HOTSPOTS?
Fungal endophytes are found in asymptomatic photosynthetic tissues of all major lineages of land plants. The ubiquity of these cryptic symbionts is clear, but the scale of their diversity, host range, and geographic distributions are unknown. To explore the putative hyperdiversity of tropical leaf endophytes, we compared endophyte communities along a broad latitudinal gradient from the Canadian arctic to the lowland tropical forest of central Panama. Here, we use molecular sequence data from 1403 endophyte strains to show that endophytes increase in incidence, diversity, and host breadth from arctic to tropical sites. Endophyte communities from higher latitudes are characterized by relatively few species from many different classes of Ascomycota, whereas tropical endophyte assemblages are dominated by a small number of classes with a very large number of endophytic species. The most easily cultivated endophytes from tropical plants have wide host ranges, but communities are dominated by a large number of rare species whose host range is unclear. Even when only the most easily cultured species are considered, leaves of tropical trees represent hotspots of fungal species diversity, containing numerous species not yet recovered from other biomes. The challenge remains to recover and identify those elusive and rarely cultured taxa with narrower host ranges, and to elucidate the ecological roles of these little-known symbionts in tropical forests.