First and second authors: Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602; and third author: U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Shrub Sciences Laboratory, Provo, UT 84606.
The genus Fusarium has a wide host range and causes many different forms of plant disease. These include seed rot and seedling blight diseases of cultivated plants. The diseases caused by Fusarium on wild plants are less well-known. In this study, we examined disease development caused by Fusarium sp. n on nondormant seeds of the important rangeland weed Bromus tectorum as part of broader studies of the phenomenon of stand failure or “die-off” in this annual grass. We previously isolated an undescribed species in the F. tricinctum species complex from die-off soils and showed that it is pathogenic on seeds. It can cause high mortality of nondormant B. tectorum seeds, especially under conditions of water stress, but rarely attacks dormant seeds. In this study, we used scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to investigate the mode of attack used by this pathogen. Nondormant B. tectorum seeds (i.e., florets containing caryopses) were inoculated with isolate Skull C1 macroconidia. Seeds were then exposed to water stress conditions (−1.5 MPa) for 7 days and then transferred to free water. Time lapse SEM photographs of healthy versus infected seeds revealed that hyphae under water stress conditions grew toward and culminated their attack at the abscission layer of the floret attachment scar. A prominent infection cushion, apparent macroscopically as a white tuft of mycelium at the radicle end of the seed, developed within 48 h after inoculation. Seeds that lacked an infection cushion completed germination upon transfer to free water, whereas seeds with an infection cushion were almost always killed. In addition, hyphae on seeds that did not initiate germination lacked directional growth and did not develop the infection cushion. This strongly suggests that the fungal attack is triggered by seed exudates released through the floret attachment scar at the initiation of germination. Images of cross sections of infected seeds showed that the fungal hyphae first penetrated the caryposis wall, then entered the embryo, and later ramified throughout the endosperm, completely destroying the seed.