Conifers predominantly occur on soils or in climates that are suboptimal for plant growth. This is generally attributed to symbioses with mycorrhizal fungi and to conifer adaptations, but recent experiments suggest that aboveground endophytic bacteria in conifers fix nitrogen (N) and affect host shoot tissue growth. Because most bacteria cannot be grown in the laboratory very little is known about conifer-endophyte associations in the wild. Pinus flexilis (limber pine) and Picea engelmannii (Engelmann spruce) growing in a subalpine, nutrient-limited environment are potential candidates for hosting endophytes with roles in N2 fixation and abiotic stress tolerance. We used 16S rRNA pyrosequencing to ask whether these conifers host a core of bacterial species that are consistently associated with conifer individuals and therefore potential mutualists. We found that while overall the endophyte communities clustered according to host species, both conifers were consistently dominated by the same phylotype, which made up 19-53% and 14-39% of the sequences in P. flexilis and P. engelmannii, respectively. This phylotype is related to Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus and other N2 fixing acetic acid bacterial endophytes. The pattern observed for the P. flexilis and P. engelmannii needle microbiota-a small number of major species that are consistently associated with the host across individuals and species-is unprecedented for an endophyte community, and suggests a specialized beneficial endophyte function. One possibility is endophytic N fixation, which could help explain how conifers can grow in severely nitrogen-limited soil, and why some forest ecosystems accumulate more N than can be accounted for by known nitrogen input pathways.
Keywords: 16S rRNA; Acetobacteraceae; Picea; Pinus; bacterial endophytes; conifers; nitrogen; subalpine.