Mycorrhizal Types Control Biodiversity Effects on Productivity

An international, collaborative team of researchers shed light on how fungi and plant roots work together to gather nutrients — and how the diversity of plant species may impact the process.
Fungi growing on plants in a forest

Fungi growing on plants in a forest

This news release first appeared in the Chinese Academy of Sciences newsroom, and has been tailored for Georgia Tech readers.

Mycorrhizal symbiosis — a symbiotic relationship that can exist between fungi and plant roots — helps plants expand their root surface area, giving plants greater access to nutrients and water. Although the first and foremost role of mycorrhizal symbiosis is to facilitate plant nutrition, scientists have not been clear how mycorrhizal types mediate the nutrient acquisition and interactions of coexisting trees in forests.  

To investigate this crucial relationship, Lingli Liu, a professor at the Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IBCAS) led an international, collaborative team, which included School of Biological Sciencesprofessor Lin Jiang. The team studied nutrient acquisition strategies of arbuscular mycorrhizae (AM) and ectomycorrhizal (EcM) trees in the Biodiversity–Ecosystem Functioning (BEF) experiment in a subtropical forest in China, where trees of the two mycorrhizal types were initially evenly planted in mixtures of two, four, eight, or 16 tree species.   

The researchers found that as the diversity of species increased, the net primary production (NPP) of EcM trees rapidly decreased, but the NPP of AM trees progressively increased, leading to the sheer dominance (>90%) of AM trees in the highest diversity treatment. 

The team's analyses further revealed that differences in mycorrhizal nutrient-acquisition strategies, both nutrient acquisition from soil and nutrient resorption within the plant, contribute to the competitive edge of AM trees over EcM ones.  

In addition, analysis of soil microbial communities showed that EcM-tree monocultures have a high abundance of symbiotic fungi, whereas AM-tree monocultures were dominated by saprotrophic and pathogenic fungi.  

According to the researchers, as tree richness increased, shifts in microbial communities, particularly a decrease in the relative abundance of Agaricomycetes (mainly EcM fungi), corresponded with a decrease in the NPP of EcM subcommunities, but had a relatively small impact on the NPP of AM subcommunities.  

These findings suggest that more efficient nutrient-acquisition strategies, rather than microbial-mediated negative plant-soil feedback, drive the dominance of AM trees in high-diversity ecosystems.  

This study, based on the world’s largest forest BEF experiment, provides novel data and an alternative mechanism for explaining why and how AM trees usually dominate in high-diversity subtropical forests.

These findings also have practical implications for species selection in tropical and subtropical reforestation—suggesting it is preferable to plant mixed AM trees, as they have a more efficient nutrient-acquisition strategy than EcM trees.  

This study was published as an online cover article in Sciences Advances on Jan. 19 and was funded by the Strategic Priority Research Program of CAS and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

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