Mycorrhizal symbioses link the biosphere with the lithosphere by mediating nutrient cycles and energy flow though terrestrial ecosystems. A more mechanistic understanding of these plant–fungal associations may help ameliorate anthropogenic changes to C and N cycles and biotic communities. We explore three interacting principles: (1) optimal allocation, (2) biotic context and (3) fungal adaptability that may help predict mycorrhizal responses to carbon dioxide enrichment, nitrogen eutrophication, invasive species and land-use changes. Plant–microbial feedbacks and thresholds are discussed in light of these principles with the goal of generating testable hypotheses. Ideas to develop large-scale collaborative research efforts are presented. It is our hope that mycorrhizal symbioses can be effectively integrated into global change models and eventually their ecology will be understood well enough so that they can be managed to help offset some of the detrimental effects of anthropogenic environmental change.