The evolution of plant-associated lifestyles in the Ascomycota

Profile Display Name:

Rowena Hill

E-mail Address:

Start Year

2018 (Cohort 5)

Research interests:
Hobbies and interests:
PhD Project
PhD Title

The evolution of plant-associated lifestyles in the Ascomycota

Research Theme

Evolution and Adaptation

Primary Supervisor
Primary Institution


Secondary Supervisor
Secondary Institution

Royal Botanic Gardens, KEW


The Ascomycota form the largest phylum in the fungal kingdom and comprise a wide diversity of lifestyles, some involving beneficial or harmful associations with plants. Distinguishing between fungal endophytes – species which live in plants while causing no visible harm – and disease-causing plant pathogens is of major significance to economic and ecological issues relating to plant health. An evolutionary genomics approach can provide insight into the genetic determinants of these lifestyles and requires a robust phylogenomic framework. In this thesis, I have demonstrated the underutilised potential of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank as a resource for novel endophyte diversity and highlighted the possible implications of seed endophyte communities on effective seed banking. I have then focused on a case-study of globally important fusarioid fungi, completing whole genome sequencing and assembly for five endophytic Fusarium strains from the Millennium Seed Bank, including a new species to science. Producing a dated, genome-scale phylogeny of fusarioid fungi not only revealed patterns in the timing and frequency of lifestyle transitions, but also allowed me to assess the extent to which genetic content is shared between taxa due to ancestry versus lifestyle. This included an exploration of gene repertoires with relevance to the plant-fungal interaction: candidate secreted effector proteins and carbohydrate-active enzymes. No clear genomic signatures separated plant pathogens and endophytes in the lineage, highlighting both the difficulty in predicting pathogenic potential and the uncertainties that remain as to whether endophytes can safely be used for biocontrol. I have additionally completed whole genome sequencing and assembly for a further fifteen endophyte strains from clades across the Ascomycota – seven using MinION long-read sequencing for hybrid assembly – to provide much needed high-quality genomic data for the understudied endophytic lifestyle. Together, my thesis adds evidence to the idea that fungal endophytism is transient.

Policy Impact
Background Reading

Alan Buddie (CABI) website:


The Conversation Podcast interview. Contributors: Rowena HillNaked Scientists Podcast interview. Contributors: Rowena Hill

News & Blogs

How we discovered a hidden world of fungi inside the world’s biggest seed bank, The Conversation

Conferences and Workshops
  • 2019 Biennial Conference of the Systematics Association (June 2019). Talk: Exploring the evolution of the lichenicolous lifestyle within the Ascomycota.
  • Engaging Sustainability – Joint DTP Conference 2020 (September 2020). Talk: Let’s Talk About Fungi.: 10.13140/RG.2.2.36328.70403
  • BMS Autumn Open Meeting 2020 (November 2020). Talk: Seed Banks as Incidental Fungal Endophyte Banks.
  • Evolution 2021 (July 2021). Talk: Evolution of fungal lifestyles and associated effector proteins in the genus Fusarium (Ascomycota, Fungi).
  • SMBE 2021 (July 2021). Poster: Evolution of fungal lifestyles and associated effector proteins in the genus Fusarium (Ascomycota, Fungi).
  • Rise of the Fungi Symposium (April 2022). Poster: Discovering the Fungal Tree of Life: Methods for Uncovering Fungarium Diversity.

Plant Health Evidence and Analysis Team, DEFRA, supervised by Sam Grant. 23/03/2022 – 23/06/2022.

  • Kew Science Festival
Social Links
University Departmental Website:
Personal Website:



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