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Mutualism And Antagonism In The Mycorrhizal Symbiosis, With Special Reference To Impacts On Plant Community Structure

R. Francis, D. J. Read

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Examination of the roots of land plants has revealed the occurrence of mycorrhiza in the majority of species, over 70% of which are hosts to zygomycetous fungi that form vesicular–arbuscular (VA) associations. On the basis of experiments with a small number of host species showing enhancement of growth following colonization, it is widely assumed that wherever mycorrhizas are observed, the symbiosis is of the mutualistic type. The value of definitions based on structural rather than functional attributes is here brought into question by experiments simulating the ecologically realistic circumstance in which seeds germinate in soil in the presence or absence of established VA mycelium. These reveal a spectrum of fungal impacts in which some species respond mutualistically, while others, putative hosts or nonhosts, are antagonised, showing reduction of yield and survivorship and, hence, a loss of fitness relative to plants grown without VA fungi. Antagonised species normally grow in disturbed, open habitats and fail to establish in closed communities. It is hypothesised that their turf incompatibility arises from a sensitivity to interference by VA fungi, which consigns them to ruderal habitats. Mycorrhizal fungi, thus, play a role in defining the ecological niches occupied by plants and in determining of plant community composition. Key words: mycorrhiza, vesicular–arbuscular, mutualism, symbiosis, antagonism, plant community.