Responses of Medicago truncatula to colonization by two arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, Scutellospora calospora isolate WUM 12(2) and Glomus caledonium isolate RIS 42, were compared in the light of previous findings that the former fungus can be ineffective as a beneficial microsymbiont with some host plants. The plants were grown individually in two-compartment systems in which a lateral side arm containing soil labelled with 33P was separated from the main soil compartment by a nylon mesh that prevented penetration by roots but not fungal hyphae. Fungal inoculum was applied as a root–soil mixture in a band opposite the side arm. Nonmycorrhizal controls were set up similarly, without inoculum. There were harvests at 28, 35, 42 and 49 d. Both sets of mycorrhizal plants grew better than nonmycorrhizal plants and initially had higher concentrations of P in shoots and roots. Plants grown with S. calospora grew better than plants grown with G. caledonium, and this was associated with somewhat greater fungal colonization in terms of intraradical hyphae and numbers of arbuscules. Scutellospora calospora formed denser hyphae at root surfaces than G. caledonium. By 28 d there were extensive hyphae of both fungi in the side arms, and after 35 d S. calospora produced denser hyphae there than G. caledonium. Nevertheless, there was very little transfer of 33P via S. calospora to the plant at 28 d, and thereafter its transfer increased at a rate only c. 33% of that via G. caledonium. The results showed that plants colonized by S. calospora preferentially obtained P from sites in the main soil chamber relatively close to the roots, compared with plants colonized by G. caledonium. Hence formation of a highly beneficial arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis does not necessarily depend on development of hyphae at a distance from the roots or on large-scale translocation of P from distant sites. The results are discussed in relation to previous studies with compartmented systems that have involved the same fungi. Possible causes of the variable effects of S. calospora in symbiosis with different host plants are briefly assessed. Differences in spatial abilities of individual arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi to acquire P might have strong ecological implications for plant growth in soils low in P.