As primary producers of life, the hundreds of thousands of species of flowering plants are an essential component of Earth’s biodiversity. Interestingly, seeds of flowering plants often bear additional biological diversity in the form of partnering fungi and bacteria. Diverse impacts of seed-borne fungi include enhanced protection of host plants from parasites, pathogens and drought, as well as effects on diversity of their ecosystems. Recently, one fungus was even shown to donate a disease resistance gene to a wild relative of wheat. This study employs cutting-edge methods in ecology, genomics and other biological sciences to research the diversity of plants and their seed-borne fungal partners in the U.S. and in China, a global hotspot for plant diversity. Results will guide efforts to preserve biological diversity and promote healthy, resilient and productive natural ecosystems, rangelands and pastures. Outputs to the public and the scientific community will enhance knowledge of plant-microbe symbiosis as a key dimension of diversity. The research and educational exchange activities will strengthen and diversify scientific collaboration between scientists and students in China and the U.S., provide training to graduate students and postdocs in a broad range of biological and bioinformatic sciences, and integrate field, classroom, and lab activities for K-12 and undergraduate students to discover microscopic and macroscopic layers of biological complexity.

This project will first entail a survey for seed-borne fungal endophytes across the taxonomic range of flowering plants, with emphasis on the plant diversity in China. The GBOWS (Germplasm Bank of Wild Species) seed collection in Kunming, China encompasses 37% of Chinese flowering plant species, and this and other collections will be surveyed to examine occurrence and possible roles of fungal seed-endophytes in the diversity of flowering plants. Then, endophyte-symbiotic plant species will be surveyed over wide geographic ranges to elucidate interactions of different “dimensions” of diversity of the target plants and their symbionts. Such dimensions will include genetics, gene expression, morphological characteristics, and ecological effects. These studies will also extend to neighboring plants that grow in association with the target species and the seed-endophytes that they, too, might possess. To complement these broad-scale surveys, the third objective will involve field experiments, conducted jointly with K-12 schools, to test how seed-borne fungal endophytes of grasses and legumes may drive diversity of their hosts and the broader plant community.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)
Application #
Program Officer
Christopher Balakrishnan
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Kentucky
United States
Zip Code