Welcome to EnDoBiodiversity!

EndobiodiversityAlthough the global diversity of fungi is estimated to far exceed 1,500,000 species, mycologists have described only ca. 100,000 species so far. The disparity largely reflects an immense but invisible richness that is hidden within other organisms through symbiosis. As major sources of ecological and evolutionary innovation, symbioses drive genome evolution, ecological diversification, and speciation, thereby shaping all dimensions of the diversity of life. 

The goal of this project is to study one of the planet’s most prevalent but least-understood symbioses: that of endophytic fungi (endophytes), which occur within healthy above-ground tissues of all plants (and in lichens as endolichenic fungi) in biomes ranging from tropical rainforests to Arctic tundra. 

Endophytes are hyperdiverse at the species level, phylogenetically rich, ecologically important, evolutionarily dynamic, and represent an under-explored trove of taxonomic, genetic, and functional diversity. Estimated to comprise as many as 1 million species – less than 1% of which have been described to date -- endophytes have been found in every plant and lichen species, including wild-, crop- and forage plants in all terrestrial biomes sampled so far. Endophyte communities often change markedly across hosts’ geographic ranges and overlap among biogeographic provinces is rare. Endophytes produce metabolites of use in agriculture, medicine, and industry, and can provide an array of previously understudied benefits to their hosts, including defense against pests and pathogens, and – of special relevance in the era of climate change – tolerance to stresses such as heat and drought. Although rich in all terrestrial communities, endophytes peak in phylogenetic diversity in boreal forests, an imperiled ecosystem of immense global importance and one in which their ecological associations, genetic diversity, and functional roles are largely unknown.

The overarching goal of this project is to develop a novel, integrated, and multidisciplinary biodiversity-informatics pipeline to discover, evaluate and describe the taxonomic, functional, and genetic diversity of endophytes at multiple spatial and phylogenetic scales around the circumboreal belt. Data generated through this project will be multifaceted, ranging from results of field surveys and laboratory experiments to the sequencing of genomes with next-generation technology. As a result, the scale of endophyte biodiversity will be unveiled for the world’s largest biome, transformative taxonomic practices to capture unknown diversity will be established, new and useful model systems for functional and genetic studies will be developed, biological functions of endophytes will be tested systematically through experimental work, and the mechanisms underlying the genetic and functional diversity of these hyperdiverse symbionts will be elucidated.

This project is led by a team of four principal investigators: A. Elizabeth Arnold, University of Arizona; Ignazio Carbone, North Carolina State University; François Lutzoni, Duke University; and Georgiana May, University of Minnesota. Every component of this proposal reflects the complementary strengths of the PI team and our international network of collaborators in taxonomic, genetic, and functional biology. The result is an exquisite opportunity to address ecological, evolutionary, and mechanistic questions in a synthetic manner far exceeding the scope of any individual lab. Development of novel biodiversity informatics tools, which will be shared publicly, will be complemented by significant contributions to culture collections, herbaria, and sequence databases. Hosting of international researchers, leadership of international workshops, and development of international symposia will synergize fungal taxonomy, molecular systematics, and the study of functional traits, boosting rates of species descriptions to an unprecedented level and fostering novel collaborations in the study of fungal symbiosis. In turn, innovative training of STEM teachers, high school-, undergraduate-, and graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows both locally and abroad will contribute to a broader understanding and appreciation of boreal biomes, the roles of cryptic fungal symbionts, and the scope and importance of Earth’s undiscovered biodiversity.