Diversity and evolutionary origins of fungi associated with seeds of a neotropical pioneer tree: a case study for analysing fungal environmental samples

Jana M. U'Ren, James W. Dalling, Rachel E. Gallery, David R. Maddison, E. Christine Davis, Cara M. Gibson, A. Elizabeth Arnold

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Fungi associated with seeds of tropical trees pervasively affect seed survival and germination, and thus are an important, but understudied, component of forest ecology. Here, we examine the diversity and evolutionary origins of fungi isolated from seeds of an important pioneer tree (Cecropia insignis, Cecropiaceae) following burial in soil for five months in a tropical moist forest in Panama. Our approach, which relied on molecular sequence data because most isolates did not sporulate in culture, provides an opportunity to evaluate several methods currently used to analyse environmental samples of fungi. First, intra- and interspecific divergence were estimated for the nu-rITS and 5.8S gene for four genera of Ascomycota that are commonly recovered from seeds. Using these values we estimated species boundaries for 527 isolates, showing that seed-associated fungi are highly diverse, horizontally transmitted, and genotypically congruent with some foliar endophytes from the same site. We then examined methods for inferring the taxonomic placement and phylogenetic relationships of these fungi, evaluating the effects of manual versus automated alignment, model selection, and inference methods, as well as the quality of BLAST-based identification using GenBank. We found that common methods such as neighbor-joining and Bayesian inference differ in their sensitivity to alignment methods; analyses of particular fungal genera differ in their sensitivity to alignments; and numerous and sometimes intricate disparities exist between BLAST-based versus phylogeny-based identification methods. Lastly, we used our most robust methods to infer phylogenetic relationships of seed-associated fungi in four focal genera, and reconstructed ancestral states to generate preliminary hypotheses regarding the evolutionary origins of this guild. Our results illustrate the dynamic evolutionary relationships among endophytic fungi, pathogens, and seed-associated fungi, and the apparent evolutionary distinctiveness of saprotrophs. Our study also elucidates the diversity, taxonomy, and ecology of an important group of plant-associated fungi and highlights some of the advantages and challenges inherent in the use of ITS data for environmental sampling of fungi.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)432-449
Number of pages18
JournalMycological Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2009


  • Alignment
  • Ancestral state reconstruction
  • Ascomycota
  • Barro Colorado Island
  • Endophytes
  • Phylogeny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics
  • Plant Science


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