Cost efficiency of nutrient acquisition and the advantage of mycorrhizal symbiosis for the host plant


  • Juha Tuomi,

  • Minna-Maarit Kytöviita,

  • Roger Härdling

J. Tuomi, M.-M. Kytöviita and R. Härdling, Dept of Biology, Univ. of Oulu, Box 3000, FIN-90401 Oulu, Finland ( (present address of RH: Dept of Theoretical Ecology, Univ. of Lund, Ecology Building, SE-223 62 Lund, Sweden).


Mycorrhizal symbiosis involves reciprocal transfer of carbon and nutrients between shoots on the one hand and roots colonized by symbiotic fungi on the other. Mycorrhizas may improve the mineral nutrient acquisition rates, but simultaneously increase the belowground demand for carbon. Mycorrhizal plants will have a selective advantage over non-mycorrhizal ones if they are more cost-efficient in terms of carbon cost per unit of acquired mineral nutrient. However, we demonstrate here in a simple model system that this is not a necessary condition. Mycorrhizas may evolve even when they are less cost-efficient, provided that photosynthesis and/or growth are strongly nutrient-limited. This result implies a unique hypothesis for the evolution of mycorrhizal associations which may be inherently cost-inefficient as compared to plant roots. Such symbioses may have evolved when the superior nutrient acquisition rate of fungi combines with the relatively high photosynthetic nutrient use efficiency of the host plant. Consequently, provided that mycorrhizas are really cost-inefficient, the selective advantage of mycorrhizal plants will disappear when an increase in the nutrient acquisition rate is not associated with a sufficiently high nutrient use efficiency of photosynthesis, as at high soil nutrient levels or due to a loss of leaf area, shading or low temperatures.