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Plant-Mycorrhizal Interactions Influence Coexistence Patterns in Plants
Published: January 03, 2017
Posted: March 16, 2017

The symbiosis between plants and mycorrhizal fungi can change nutrient availability, which can alter how plants interact and coexist.

The Science
The coexistence of plants in an ecosystem is regulated by resource availability and competition for those resources. Mycorrhizal fungi (MF), a root symbiont that helps plants obtain nutrients, can alter how plants compete for resources, which can alter patterns of plant coexistence. MF are found almost everywhere that plants grow, so leaving them out of climate models can cause inaccurate predictions of ecosystem patterns such as plant coexistence. Researchers recently developed a new mathematical model that includes MF for the first time.

The Impact
Because MF alter resource availability, it may seem obvious that they will alter plant coexistence. Until now, however, mathematical models did not include MF. Including MF in models will lead to better predictions, which can enable better understanding of patterns in nature and how they might be altered by climate change.

Mycorrhizal fungi can alter plant coexistence patterns by changing the host plant’s ability to compete for resources in the soil. How MF change plant coexistence patterns depends on how dependent the host plant and MF are on one another for survival, the rate at which plants and MF exchange nutrients, and how plant growth patterns respond to the cost-benefit ratio of their symbiotic relationship with MF. A new model, which explicitly includes MF, shows that there are tradeoffs to the symbiosis. At times, the carbon cost of MF is balanced by the increase in nutrient availability; however, it is also possible for the carbon cost to outweigh the nutrient benefits and for MF to become detrimental to the host plant’s growth. The balance of the symbiotic relationship can affect plant competition for resources, which can lead to changes in plant coexistence. This model will enable future empirical studies to form hypotheses in light of a better understanding of MF’s role in plant coexistence patterns.

BER Program Managers
Daniel Stover and Jared DeForest
SC-23.1 (301-903-0289) (301-903-1678)

Principal Investigator
Aimee T. Classen        
University of Vermont
Burlington, VT 05405

This work was supported by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, within the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, under Award Number DE-SC0010562.

Jiang J., et al. “Plant-mycorrhizal interactions mediate plant community coexistence by altering resource demand.” Ecology 98(1), 187–197 (2017). [DOI:10.1002/ecy.1630].

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling
  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Carbon Cycle, Nutrient Cycling

Division: SC-33.1 Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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