Background: Although the effect of elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration on pollen production has been established in some plant species, impacts on fungal sporulation and antigen production have not been elucidated.
Objective: Our purpose was to examine the effects of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations on the quantity and quality of fungal spores produced on timothy (Phleum pratense) leaves.
Methods: Timothy plants were grown at four CO2 concentrations (300, 400, 500, and 600 micromol/mol). Leaves were used as growth substrate for Alternaria alternata and Cladosporium phlei. The spore abundance produced by both fungi, as well as the size (microscopy) and antigenic protein content (ELISA) of A. alternata, were quantified.
Results: Leaf carbon-to-nitrogen ratio was greater at 500 and 600 micromol/mol, and leaf biomass was greater at 600 micromol/mol than at the lower CO2 concentrations. Leaf carbon-to-nitrogen ratio was positively correlated with A. alternata spore production per gram of leaf but negatively correlated with antigenic protein content per spore. At 500 and 600 micromol/mol CO2 concentrations, A. alternata produced nearly three times the number of spores and more than twice the total antigenic protein per plant than at lower concentrations. C. phlei spore production was positively correlated with leaf carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, but overall spore production was much lower than in A. alternata, and total per-plant production did not vary among CO2 concentrations.
Conclusions: Elevated CO2 concentrations often increase plant leaf biomass and carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Here we demonstrate for the first time that these leaf changes are associated with increased spore production by A. alternata, a ubiquitous allergenic fungus. This response may contribute to the increasing prevalence of allergies and asthma.