Endophytic fungi are plant-associated microorganisms which inhabit living tissues and do not cause any harmful effect to their host. They can establish mutualistic relationships based on plant protection or growth promotion.
After evidence resulting from the manifold investigations carried out in the last decades, the awareness that endophytic fungi are constantly associated with plants and remarkably influence their ecological fitness has significantly increased. In fact, the original boost concerning natural ecosystems incited by the general theoretical intent to exploit all components of biodiversity, basically as a source of novel bioactive products, has more recently extended to crops. Within agricultural contexts, the role of the endophytic microbiota, or endosphere, is more consistent in orchards, where the time factor confers higher impact to the establishment of an equilibrium among the species which are part of the tree biocoenosis, as well as to its eventual disruption .
The extent at which the accumulating knowledge on the beneficial effects of endophytic microorganisms may have a practical impact in tree crop management, and further progresses can be achieved, is largely dependent on the opportunity by the scientific community and actors in the field to access it in an organized form.
The Mediterranean Basin landscape and culture have been shaped by olive tree since ancient times, but the ecological importance of this tree has only recently been acknowledged . In the semiarid Mediterranean agricultural lands, new approaches in fruit orchard management have been forced by environmental constrains, such as soil degradation and water shortage, and agronomical techniques that may be able to improve or preserve soil quality and fertility, other than plant health, have gained particular importance . Modern intensification in olive cultivation practices is causing increased incidence and severity of olive pests and diseases; whereas sustainable management systems can positively affect soil biochemical characteristics and soil microbial diversity , and contribute to improve landscape stability, mainly in the rising condition of abandoned olive groves . Thus, year by year a fast-growing percentage of the growers’ incomes is invested in agrochemicals, to promote olive tree growth, to control plant pathogens, and to increase the olive yield and quality, simultaneously generating a great public concern on the negative effects of the agrochemicals use on the environment, on the ecosystem’s biodiversity, and human and animal health . Consequently, several efforts have been done on the development of eco-friendly cultivation practices suitable to sustainable disease control by ameliorating olive tree health and productivity through methods and strategies that promote soil biological processes, decrease agricultural inputs, and improve soil structure and fertility .
The diversity of microorganisms associated with plants may stimulate their growth and induce tolerance mechanisms helping plants to counteract adverse environmental conditions. In arid and semiarid environments, crops are facing environmental constraints due to climate-change-driven rising temperatures, changes in rainfall frequency, and occurrence of extreme events . These habitat-elicited stresses may reduce crop productivity and lead to soil erosion and degradation. Plants dwelling in such environments have developed mechanisms helping them to mitigate and counteract abiotic stress. Microorganisms of the rhizosphere can play a pivotal role in health and growth of olive tree too, by establishing strong relationships with the root system that enable plants to grow in limiting conditions, such as water scarcity, salinity, low soil fertility, and so on. In addition to studies on the intrinsic ability of olive tree to adapt to adverse environmental conditions , a significant research activity has been performed on rhizosphere microbes providing increased tolerance to host plants under abiotic stress, mainly focusing on plant growth promoting rhizobacteria and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi . Moreover, fungi and actinomycetes have been recognized as able to use root exudates as a carbon source, supplying plants with promptly assimilable nitrates, and playing a crucial role in the maintenance of soil health, besides exerting antagonistic effects on root pathogens .
In the plant holobiont system, these beneficial effects are integrated by the microbial component of the endosphere. Endophyte colonization of plants has been recognized to involve a sequence of cross-talking signals that allow the onset of compatible interactions. Once the interrelation has established, endophytes increase stress tolerance through the stress-responsive gene induction/expression, reactive oxygen species and anti-stress metabolite synthesis . Under abiotic stress conditions, endophytic fungi have been reported to produce plant hormones and compatible solutes that maintain integrity and promote growth of the host. Moreover, they are known to protect their host plants against biotic adversities through the production of bioactive compounds and the stimulation of the defense reaction . As soon as interactions between endophytes and plants have been disclosed, it has been argued that they can be exploited for the development of innovative applications in sustainable but still highly productive cultivation systems (, and literature therein), similarly to the better known other groups of microbes. As a result of the rising demand for organic agricultural products, perspectives for the application of these microorganisms as potential biopesticides and biofertilizers have become more consistent in the olive sector too , along with an incremental interest for the search and identification of species-specific endophytes .
To date about 300 taxa of fungi belonging to the Ascomycota, Basidiomycota and Mucoromycota have been reported in association with olive trees, particularly with reference to a potential defensive role against pests and disease agents .