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Mycorrhizal Activity In Warm- And Cool-season Grasses: Variation In Nutrient-uptake Strategies

B. A. D. Hetrick, G. W. T. Wilson, A. P. Schwab

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Because cool-season grasses display little or no mycorrhizal responsiveness in prairie soil, it is unclear whether the high levels of mycorrhizal activity observed previously in these grasses represent nutrient uptake by external hyphae or simply metabolism of stored fungal reserves in roots. To distinguish between these hypotheses, a warm-season grass, Andropogon gerardii, or a cool-season grass, Bromus inermis, were grown at two temperatures on one side of a pot divided by a 43-μm nylon root barrier. Mycorrhizal function was assessed by measuring the amount of 32P translocated from one side of the pot to plants on the other side. As a control, mycorrhizal hyphae crossing the barrier were severed manually. Approximately 100 times more 32P was observed in mycorrhizal B. inermis grown at 18 °C versus 29 °C, and in B. inermis with intact versus severed hyphae at the cooler temperature. In contrast, A. gerardii accumulated approximately 4 times more 32P at 29 °C than at 18 °C, and approximately 100 times more with intact versus severed hyphae at the warmer temperature. Thus, it appears that mycorrhizal hyphae are highly active in both plant species regardless of the host's mycorrhizal responsiveness. Furthermore, mycorrhizal activity is highest at the temperature that favors growth of each species. The considerable activity of mycorrhizae in B. inermis is enigmatic since it usually has no biomass response. To further clarify the relationship between nutrient uptake and biomass response, both plant species were fertilized with a range of P levels and grown at a neutral temperature that supported the growth of both species. Although the concentration of P in B. inermis plant tissue increased in response to fertilization, there was no corresponding increase in biomass. In contrast, for A. gerardii, there was a direct and positive relationship between P fertilization and biomass produced, but tissue P concentrations remained relatively stable. Mycorrhizal symbiosis had no overall effect on biomass of B. inermis but significantly improved the growth of A. gerardii. These experiments showed clear differences in the growth strategies used by these two plant species. It is unclear whether these are differences that can be attributed to warm- and cool-season grasses in general. Short-term biomass responses as a measure of a plant's reliance on the symbiosis may not entirely reflect the contribution of the symbiosis if plants store nutrients with subsequent and perhaps delayed effects on fecundity, offspring performance, or even biomass. However, if the stored nutrient merely represents luxury consumption, this could still affect competitive ability because luxury consumption preempts the availability of nutrients for competitors. Key words: mycorrhizal responsiveness, mycorrhizal dependence, big bluestem, smooth bromegrass.