Locoweeds are plants of the genera Astragalus and Oxytropis (Fabaceae family) and are toxic to cattle, sheep, and horses. The toxic property of locoweeds is due to the alkaloid swainsonine (SWA), which is synthesized by an endophytic fungus Alternaria spp. section Undifilum. Although the endophyte–locoweed complex is often considered mutualistic, empirical evidence for benefits to host plants is lacking. This study: 1) compared the growth, photosynthesis, and leaf pigment and antioxidant concentrations between endophyte-infected and endophyte-free plants under well-watered and water-deficit conditions; and 2) measured SWA to determine whether SWA concentrations are attenuated by water deficit and leaf age. Locoweed species in this study were woolly loco and silky crazyweed. Endophyte-infected and endophyte-free (by removal of seed coat) seedlings, as confirmed by DNA analyses, were grown under greenhouse conditions for 6 mo, after which plants were subjected to three 12- to 15-d water-deficit periods that created sublethal drought conditions. Results suggest that the endophyte did not influence photosynthetic gas exchange and leaf pigment concentrations. Under well-watered conditions only, endophyte-infected woolly loco plants had lower shoot and root biomass and higher concentrations of α-tocopherol than endophyte-free plants. SWA analyses revealed taxon-specific effects of water deficit, with water deficit increasing SWA concentrations in young leaves of woolly loco but not affecting SWA concentration in silky crazyweed. These results suggest that the endophyte behaves as a parasite in woolly loco plants grown under optimal but not under water-limited conditions. Further, results indicate that drought conditions elevate the toxicity of woolly loco plants. Improved understanding of endophyte-locoweed interactions and factors influencing SWA levels will contribute to the development of livestock management strategies to predict toxicity in particular locoweed populations.
Nomenclature: Silky crazyweed, Oxytropis sericea Nutt.; woolly loco, Astragalus mollissimus Torr.