Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park 16802.
Much of the current knowledge on population biology and ecology of soilborne fungal pathogens has been derived from research based on populations recovered from plants displaying disease symptoms or soil associated with symptomatic plants. Many soilborne fungal pathogens are known to cause disease on a large number of crop plants, including a variety of important agronomical, horticultural, ornamental, and forest plants species. For instance, the fungus Verticillium dahliae causes disease on >400 host plants. From a phytopathological perspective, plants on which disease symptoms have not been yet observed are considered to be nonhosts for V. dahliae. This term may be misleading because it does not provide information regarding the nature of the plant–fungus association; that is, a nonhost plant may harbor the fungus as an endophyte. Yet, there are numerous instances in the literature where V. dahliae has been isolated from asymptomatic plants; thus, these plants should be considered hosts. In this article, we synthesize scattered research that indicates that V. dahliae, aside from being a successful and significant vascular plant pathogen, may have a cryptic biology on numerous asymptomatic plants as an endophyte. Thus, we suggest here that these endophytic associations among V. dahliae and asymptomatic plants are not unusual relationships in nature. We propose to embrace the broader ecology of many fungi by differentiating between “symptomatic hosts” as those plants in which the infection and colonization by a fungus results in disease, and “asymptomatic hosts” as those plants that harbor the fungus endophytically and are different than true nonhosts that should be used for plant species that do not interact with the given fungus. In fact, if we broaden our definition of “host plant” to include asymptomatic plants that harbor the fungus as an endophyte, it is likely that the host ranges for some soilborne fungal pathogens are much larger than previously envisioned. By ignoring the potential for soilborne fungal pathogens to display endophytic relationships, we leave gaps in our knowledge about the population biology and ecology, persistence, and spread of these fungi in agroecosystems.