Fungal endophytes associated with roots of nurse cushion species have positive effects on native and invasive beneficiary plants in an alpine ecosystem.
Facilitation has been proposed to be a fundamental mechanism for plant coexistence, being particularly important in highly stressful environments such as alpine environments. In this type of environment, species called "cushion plants" can ameliorate the stressful conditions, acting as nurses for other plants. Of the several mechanisms proposed in the positive-interactions framework, plant-microorganism interaction may be one of the most common, but least documented. Here we show that the presence of endophytes isolated from the roots of cushion plants Laretia acaulis can play a fundamental role in the establishment, performance and survival of both native and exotic plant seedlings that are known to be facilitated by the cushion species. To test this, we measured survival and growth of two native and one invasive species at 3200 m in the Andes of Central Chile. Plants were grown inside artificial cushions filled with native soil, with or without sterilization, and with or without fungal endophytic inoculation to evaluate the role of fungal endophytes on survival and growth. In addition, we conducted a second experiment in a greenhouse with the invasive species to evaluate the effect of fungal endophytic infection/association on plant ecophysiological performance, dry biomass and seed output. Overall, our results showed a strong positive effect of fungal endophytes on the survival and growth of both native and invasive species. Moreover, maximum quantum efficiency (Fv/Fm), biomass accumulation and seed production were enhanced in the invasive species when soils were inoculated with endophytes. Thus, facilitation by root endophytic fungi on native and invasive alpine plants could determine survival and establishment in this harsh environment. Several studies have shown that direct facilitation by cushion plants in alpine environments improves the performance and fitness of both native and exotic plants. Our results suggest that there are indirect effects, mediated by microorganism associations that may also help to explain the successful establishment of native and invasive species in these environments. If indirect plant-plant facilitation through root fungal endophytes proves to be a widespread phenomenon in alpine ecosystems, it could be a key component in the structuring of plant communities in those stressful environments.