As a result of increasing anthropogenic nitrogen deposition, N availability in many forest ecosystems, which are normally N-limited, has been enhanced. We discuss the impacts of this increased N availability on the ectomycorrhizal (ECM) symbiosis which is generally regarded as an adaptation to nutrient limited conditions. Nitrogen deposition can influence fruit-body formation by ECM fungi, the production and distribution of the extraradical mycelium in the soil and the formation of ectomycorrhizas.
Available data from long-term N deposition studies indicate that the most prominent effects might be discernible above-ground (i.e. on the formation of fruit bodies). ‘Generalist’ species, forming a symbiosis with a wide range of tree species, seem to be less affected by increased N availability than ‘specialist’ species, especially those living in symbiosis with conifers. However, the importance of below-ground investigations to determine the impacts of N deposition on the ECM symbiosis must not be underestimated. Culture experiments show an optimum N concentration for the formation of extraradical mycelium and mycorrhizas. Often, negative effects only become visible at comparatively high N concentrations, but the use of a few easily cultivated species of ECM fungi, which are adapted to higher N concentrations, undermines our ability to generalize.
So far, N deposition experiments in the field have only shown minor changes in the below-ground mycorrhizal population, as estimated from the investigation of mycorrhizal root tips. However, effects on the ECM mycelium, which is the main fungal component in terms of nutrient uptake, cannot be excluded and need further consideration.
Because the photoassimilate supply from the plant to the fungal partner is crucial for the maintenance of the ECM symbiosis, we discuss the possible physiological implications of increasing N inputs on the allocation of C to the fungus. Together with ultrastructural changes, physiological effects might precede obvious visible changes and might therefore be useful early indicators of negative impacts of increasing N inputs on the ECM symbiosis.