Secret lifestyles of pyrophilous fungi in the genus Sphaerosporella

Karen W. Hughes, Alexis Case, P. Brandon Matheny, Stephanie Kivlin, Ronald H. Petersen, Andrew N. Miller, Teresa Iturriaga

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Premise: Pyrophilous fungi form aboveground fruiting structures (ascocarps) following wildfires, but their ecology, natural history, and life cycles in the absence of wildfires are largely unknown. Sphaerosporella is considered to be pyrophilous. This study explores Sphaerosporella ascocarp appearance following a rare 2016 wildfire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), compares the timing of ascocarp formation with recovery of Sphaerosporella DNA sequences in soils, and explores the association of Sphaerosporella with post-fire Table Mountain pine (Pinus pungens) seedlings. Methods: Burned sites in the GSMNP were surveyed for pyrophilous fungal ascocarps over 2 years. Ascocarps, mycorrhizae, and endophyte cultures were evaluated morphologically and by Sanger sequencing of the nuclear ribosomal ITS gene region (fungal barcode; Schoch et al., 2012). DNA from soil cores was subjected to Illumina sequencing. Results: The timing and location of post-fire Sphaerosporella ascocarp formation was correlated with recovery of Sphaerosporella DNA sequences in soils. Genetic markers (fungal barcode) of Sphaerosporella were also recovered from mycorrhizal root tips and endophyte cultures from seedlings of Pinus pungens. Conclusions: This study demonstrates that Sphaerosporella species, in the absence of fire, are biotrophic, forming both mycorrhizal and endophytic associations with developing Pinus pungens seedlings and may persist in nature in the absence of wildfire as a conifer symbiont. We speculate that Sphaerosporella may fruit only after the host plant is damaged or destroyed and that after wildfires, deep roots, needle endophytes, or heat-resistant spores could serve as a source of soil mycelium.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)876-885
Number of pages10
JournalApplications in Plant Sciences
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020


  • Pinus pungens
  • Pyronemataceae
  • endophytes
  • mycorrhizae
  • pyrophilous fungi
  • serotiny
  • wildfire

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Plant Science


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