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Fungal Pathogens in Grasslands

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Grasslands are major primary producers and function as major components of important watersheds. Although a concise definition of grasslands cannot be given using a physiognomic or structural approach, grasslands can be described as vegetation communities experiencing periodical droughts and with canopies dominated by grasses and grass-like plants. Grasslands have a cosmopolitan distribution except for the Antarctic region. Fungal interactions with grasses can be pathogenic or symbiotic. Herbivorous mammals, insects, other grassland animals, and fungal pathogens are known to play important roles in maintaining the biomass and biodiversity of grasslands. Although most pathogenicity studies on the members of Poaceae have been focused on economically important crops, the plant-fungal pathogenic interactions involved can extend to the full range of ecological circumstances that exist in nature. Hence, it is important to delineate the fungal pathogen communities and their interactions in man-made monoculture systems and highly diverse natural ecosystems. A better understanding of the key fungal players can be achieved by combining modern techniques such as next-generation sequencing (NGS) together with studies involving classic phytopathology, taxonomy, and phylogeny. It is of utmost importance to develop experimental designs that account for the ecological complexity of the relationships between grasses and fungi, both above and below ground. In grasslands, loss in species diversity increases interactions such as herbivory, mutualism, predation or infectious disease transmission. Host species density and the presence of heterospecific host species, also affect the disease dynamics in grasslands. Many studies have shown that lower species diversity increases the severity as well as the transmission rate of fungal diseases. Moreover, communities that were once highly diverse but have experienced decreased species richness and dominancy have also shown higher pathogenicity load due to the relaxed competition, although this effect is lower in natural communities. This review addresses the taxonomy, phylogeny, and ecology of grassland fungal pathogens and their interactions in grassland ecosystems.

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