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Keywords:

  • CO2 enrichment;
  • enzyme activity;
  • mutualism;
  • mycorrhizal adaptability;
  • optimal allocation;
  • plant–microbe feedbacks;
  • R*;
  • resource competition terrestrial N eutrophication

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Predicting Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change: Three Principles
  5. Application of Principles to Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change
  6. Future Research Directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Authorship
  9. References

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.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Predicting Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change: Three Principles
  5. Application of Principles to Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change
  6. Future Research Directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Authorship
  9. References

Mycorrhizal partnerships between plants and fungi play an integral role in structuring and changing terrestrial ecosystems throughout the world. These symbioses are hypothesised to have facilitated the evolutionary radiation of terrestrial plants (Pirozynski & Malloch 1975; Brundrett 2002) and contributed to massive changes in the earth's atmosphere: the rise of vascular plants 410–340 Ma corresponds with a 90% reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels (Taylor et al. 2009; Field et al. 2012). The arrival of deep roots and their associated mycorrhizas are hypothesised to have enhanced the release of calcium and magnesium from silicate rock and the reaction of these cations with CO2 generated carbonate sediments in the oceans, effectively moving CO2 from the atmosphere to the lithosphere (Taylor et al. 2009).

In today's ecosystems, mycorrhizas continue to play a crucial role in elemental cycles because they are major vectors and reservoirs of C belowground, as well as potential decomposers of soil organic matter (Talbot et al. 2008; Meyer et al. 2010; Cheng et al. 2012). Most of the Earth's terrestrial C stock is stored in soils (Swift 2001). Studies estimate that ectomycorrhizas account for approximately one-third of the living biomass in forest soils (Högberg & Högberg 2002) and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi could make up as much as one half of the microbial biomass in agricultural systems (Olsson et al. 1999). Even small changes in the processes controlling C flux into and out of mycorrhizas may have large impacts on the global C balance (Orwin et al. 2011). Furthermore, for most plant species, mycorrhizas are critical for nutrient uptake. Maximising mycorrhizal benefits in agriculture, horticulture and forestry has been identified as a potential strategy to reduce the growing footprint of global food and fibre production (Verbruggen & Kiers 2010).

An expanding human population has rapidly become a dominant driver of change to Earth systems. Indeed, the term ‘global change’ has come to mean anthropogenic environmental changes. An important question of our time is how interactions of global importance, such as mycorrhizal symbioses, will fare in a rapidly changing world. Human actions are enriching the earth with CO2 and nutrients, and altering the composition of biotic communities. Changes to the structure and functioning of microbial processes are predicted to strongly mediate community and ecosystem responses to anthropogenic environmental change (Singh et al. 2010). Understanding the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms by which mycorrhizal symbioses respond to environmental changes will help us predict, and possibly ameliorate, some of the undesirable outcomes of rapid anthropogenic changes that we currently face.

Three distinct types of mycorrhizas are likely to be important for ecosystem responses to global change. (1) Arbuscular mycorrhizas are symbioses formed between Glomeromycota and Endogone-like fungi and approximately three-fourths of all plant species, ranging from primitive liverworts and mosses to the most advanced herbaceous and woody angiosperms (Brundrett 2009; Bidartondo et al. 2011). This ancient symbiosis is also found in most agricultural crops. (2) Ectomycorrhizas are symbioses between thousands of different taxa of fungi including Basidomycetes, Ascomycetes, and Zygomycetes and primarily woody plant species (Tedersoo et al. 2010). The dominant trees in temperate and boreal forests are overwhelmingly ectomycorrhizal. (3) Ericoid mycorrhizas are symbioses between Ascomycetes and ericaceous plants that predominate in heathland and boreal habitats.

There are many excellent reviews of mycorrhizal responses to global change (e.g. Rillig et al. 2002; Drigo et al. 2008; Singh et al. 2010). The objective of this article is to build upon insights gained from these reviews and introduce three principles that describe mechanisms by which mycorrhizas respond to a changing environment. We examine the usefulness of these principles for understanding mycorrhizal responses to interrelated drivers of global change: enrichment of atmospheric CO2, nitrogen (N) eutrophication and changes in biota through invasive species and land-use change (Fig. 1). Throughout this analysis, we discuss the consequences of mycorrhizal feedbacks to community and ecosystem patterns and processes. The ultimate goal of our article is to contribute to the development of testable hypotheses that predict mycorrhizal responses to global changes, and community and ecosystem outcomes of these responses.

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Figure 1. Anthropogenic changes to the environment influence plants, associated fungi and mycorrhizal symbioses both directly and indirectly. These effects can impact community and ecosystem structure and function. The principles of optimal allocation, biotic context and mycorrhizal adaptability can help explain and predict these community and ecosystem outcomes.

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Predicting Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change: Three Principles

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Predicting Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change: Three Principles
  5. Application of Principles to Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change
  6. Future Research Directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Authorship
  9. References

Mycorrhizas respond to changes in the quantity and quality of essential resources and to changes in their biotic environment. These responses can be characterised by three principles (Fig. 1). First, the principle of optimal allocation suggests that environmental fluctuations which change the availability of soil-based resources (e.g. N, P, Zn and water) will drive host and fungal symbionts to optimise resource use through changes in allocation to biomass and associated enzyme systems. Second, the principle of biotic context argues that plant and fungal fitness are influenced by the biotic interactions within their environment. Natural selection is expected to favour phenotypes of plants and mycorrhizal fungi that are most efficient at acquiring limiting resources and avoiding losses due to competition, disease, herbivory and fungivory. These biotic interactions will determine which phenotypes have the highest fitness. Finally, the principle of adaptability postulates that the range of genetic variability maintained within populations of plants and fungi will ultimately determine their potential responses to environmental change. Here, we explain these three principles and explore how they can help predict mycorrhizal responses to environmental change (Fig. 1).

Principle 1 Optimal allocation: Plants and mycorrhizal fungi preferentially allocate biomass and energy towards acquiring the resources that are most limited in supply. For example, the chemical quality of limiting resources determines which enzyme systems are most advantageous for plants and associated fungi.

This principle originates from the ‘Law of the Minimum’ and is embodied in the functional equilibrium and optimal allocation models (for review see Johnson 2010). These optimisation models are potentially useful in helping predict mycorrhizal responses to global changes because human activities are enriching essential resources to the point that formerly limiting resources are becoming non-limiting. When this occurs, plants and fungi are predicted to shift allocation to structures in a manner that maximises the acquisition of the next most limiting resource. When an anthropogenic change makes belowground resources relatively more limiting than aboveground resources (e.g. CO2 enrichment), plants generally increase root biomass, specific root length and the degree to which they support fungal symbionts (Fig. 2a). Similarly, mycorrhizal fungi often adjust to nutrient limitations through increased allocation to networks of absorptive hyphae (Antoninka et al. 2011; Cavagnaro et al. 2011). In contrast, anthropogenic changes that decrease limitation of belowground resources relative to aboveground resources (e.g. N eutrophication) have the opposite effects on plants and mycorrhizal fungi (Fig. 2b). The principle of optimal allocation (functional equilibrium) has been shown to be useful for predicting patterns of plant and fungal responses to fertilisation at the scale of individual plant species as well as entire communities (Liu et al. 2012).

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Figure 2. Optimal allocation (functional equilibrium) predicts that plants and their associated mycorrhizal fungi will preferentially allocate biomass to structures that forage for the most limiting resource. (a) Relatively more biomass will be allocated to roots and mycorrhizal fungi in systems in which belowground resources are relatively more limited than light and CO2. (b) Relatively less biomass will be allocated to roots and mycorrhizas in systems with fertile soil and ample water. This Figure illustrates an arbuscular mycorrhiza: S are spores, EH are extra-radical hyphae, IH are intraradical hyphae, V are vesicles, and C are coils. Drawing of mycorrhizal roots courtesy of Diane Rowland. This Figure is modified from Johnson et al. 2003a.

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Organisms utilise various ‘optimisation’ strategies to acquire limiting resources. Sometimes this involves adjusting to changes in the ‘quality’ of limiting resources rather than to resource quantity. Plants, mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria inhabiting the ‘mycorrhizosphere’ produce a diversity of extracellular and cell wall bound enzymes that facilitate the acquisition of recalcitrant minerals from the soil (Pritsch & Garbaye 2011). In many natural ecosystems, the depolymerisation of proteins and other organic compounds in litter is the rate-limiting step in the generation of bioavailable N (Schimel & Bennett 2004). Mycorrhizal fungi are increasingly recognised for their direct role in decomposition and uptake of organic forms of N and P (Talbot et al. 2008). Also, mycorrhizas may help plants out-compete saprotrophic soil bacteria for nutrients (Schimel & Bennett 2004). Availability of C and essential nutrients in space and time appear to structure mycorrhizal allocation to different catabolic enzyme systems (Read & Perez-Moreno 2003; Buée et al. 2007).

Heathlands are characterised by acidic, organic rich soils that tightly sequester N and P in organic polymers. It is no coincidence that the ericoid mycorrhizal fungi that dominate these systems are powerful saprotrophs with extracellular enzymes that decouple N and P from complex polymers in low pH, organic soils. Mineral forms of N and P become more available and soil pH increases as the warmer conditions of temperate forest and grassland biomes accelerate decomposition and mineralisation processes (Read & Perez-Moreno 2003; Fig. 3). These changes are accompanied by changes in the dominant forms of mycorrhizas, generating a continuum of saprotrophy in forest ectomycorrhizas (Koide et al. 2008), to grassland arbuscular mycorrhizas, with little or no saprotrophic abilities. Although AM fungi may not function as traditional saprotrophs, there is increasing evidence that they may act as ‘decomposers in disguise’ because they have been shown to assimilate amino acids and accumulate N from decomposing organic matter (Talbot et al. 2008; Hodge & Fitter 2010). A better understanding of the enzymatic capabilities of local mycorrhizas to decompose soil organic matter will help predict whether the system has the potential to be a belowground C-source or C-sink.

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Figure 3. Latitudinal patterns (northern hemisphere) of predominant mycorrhizal types, soil properties and importance of saprotrophy for mycorrhizal acquisition of minerals. Ericod mycorrhizas with strong saprotrophic capabilities dominate in heathlands, ectomycorrhizas with a gradient of saprotrophic fungi dominate boreal and temperate forests, arbuscular mycorrhizas with little or no saprotrophic capacity dominate grasslands. Figure modified from Read & Perez-Moreno 2003.

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Principle 2 Biotic context: Mycorrhizal function depends on both abiotic and biotic context. This context dependency determines plant and fungal fitness and the outcome of mycorrhizal feedbacks for communities.

Bottom-up (resources) and top-down (exploitation) factors simultaneously shape communities and determine the traits that are most important for plant and fungal fitness and mycorrhizal function. Species and genotypes of plants and fungi differ in their growth rates, dispersal strategies, stress tolerance and competitive abilities (Grime 1979). The presence or absence of herbivores, pathogens and competitors will determine the optimal plant strategies and whether mycorrhizal symbioses improve plant fitness. Similarly, carbon allocation patterns of hosts, presence or absence of fungivores and competing microorganisms will determine optimal fungal strategies.

Anthropogenic factors that influence resource availability and/or the composition of biotic communities will likely influence the costs and benefits of mycorrhizal symbioses, and this may alter feedbacks between communities of plants and mycorrhizal fungi. Theory suggests that positive mycorrhizal feedbacks are likely to reduce plant diversity, while negative feedbacks increase plant diversity (Fig. 4; Bever et al. 2010). Mycorrhizal fungi that increase the competitive ability (fitness) of their plant host will potentially be allocated more carbohydrates, resulting in higher fitness compared to inferior competing fungal symbionts. The mutual benefits of these increasingly beneficial symbioses will generate a positive feedback such that the plant species hosting strongly beneficial mutualisms may competitively exclude species with less efficient symbioses, and in this way, plant diversity is reduced. In contrast, negative feedbacks between plants and fungi will increase plant diversity because the symbiosis is more beneficial to plants other than their hosts (Fig. 4). Thus, environmental changes that influence the symbiotic benefits of locally adapted mycorrhizas may either increase or decrease plant diversity.

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Figure 4. The fitness relationships between plant species A and B and their associated fungal communities X and Y can generate positive or negative feedbacks. Arrows depict beneficial effects and the thickness of the arrow is the relative strength of the interaction. Positive feedback between plants and their symbiotic fungi will tend to reduce the diversity of plant communities, whereas negative feedback will increase it. Figure modified from Bever et al. 2010.

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Mycorrhizas may contribute directly to the competitive abilities of plants through their affects on the uptake of soil resources. Competition theory defines the equilibrium resource level (R*) as the lowest concentration that particular resources can be diminished by particular species and phenotypes (Tilman 1988). In isocline models, R* is the resource concentration at which the net rate of population change is zero: in other words, reducing resource availability below this threshold will reduce population growth rate. Mycorrhizal fungi may substantially reduce plants’ R* for immobile elements like P and Zn, and this may influence the outcome of competitive interactions within plant communities (van der Heijden 2002; Fig. 5). Living organisms require many different resources, and a critical R* can be defined for each resource. Coexistence of two or more species is predicted when each is a superior competitor for a different resource (Tilman 1988). Mycorrhizal associations may be a very effective way for plants to partition belowground resources in space and time, and essentially avoid competitive interactions (Bever et al. 2010). We can use this principle to help predict how mycorrhizas will mediate community responses to anthropogenic changes, such as enrichment of essential resources, invasive species threats and landscape modifications.

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Figure 5. Resource dependent zero net growth isoclines for plant species A (blue dashed line) and B (red solid line) growing across a gradient of two resources. The hypothetical scenario on the left illustrates a system without mycorrhizas in which species A can competitively exclude species B because it has a lower R* for both resource 1 and 2. The scenario on the right shows how mycorrhizas reduce the R* for resource 1 in species B and this allows for stable coexistence when resources 1 and 2 are at intermediate levels of availability. The arrows on the right panel represent consumption vectors for species A and B. Figure based on van der Heijden 2002 and Tilman 1988.

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Principle 3: Mycorrhizal adaptability: Ecological and evolutionary agility in response to a changing environment depends on the amount of genetic variation that exists and/or can be generated in local populations of symbiotic fungi.

The mode and tempo of mycorrhizal responses to environmental change varies with the life history and reproductive strategies of the plant and fungal symbionts. To a certain extent, mycorrhizal fungi and plants can acclimate to changes in their environment through plasticity. However, over longer periods of time, the process of adaptation to a changed environment involves the production of a variety of genetically novel offspring on which selection can act. In this regard, AM fungi differ substantially from ecto and ericoid symbionts. Many Ascomycota and Basidomycota that form ecto and ericoid mycorrhizas reproduce sexually. Genetic variation arising from sexual reproduction will allow a range of adaptability in the offspring to environmental variation (Fig. 6a). In contrast, Glomeromycota are thought to be entirely asexual and this clonal trait is generally assumed to limit adaptability to new environments. Evidence suggests that AM fungi contain genetically different nuclei, or nucleotypes, within a single individual (Fig. 6b). This heterokaryotic state (i.e. when different nuclei share one common cytoplasm) in AM fungi has been challenged by Pawlowska & Taylor (2004). Subsequently, Ehinger et al. (2012) have provided an explanation for how the data presented by Pawlowska and Taylor are also consistent with the hypothesised heterokaryotic state. Recent work has demonstrated that nucleotype frequencies in AM fungi differ among offspring (Angelard et al. 2010; Ehinger et al. 2012). This gives AM fungi the ability to rapidly produce offspring that are genetically and phenotypically different, despite being ‘clonal’ (Angelard et al. 2010; Angelard & Sanders 2011; Ehinger et al. 2012). A remarkable amount of genetically different progeny, with a wide array of different phenotypes, has been shown to arise from a single AM fungal parent (Ehinger et al. 2012), thus giving rise to progeny that potentially may be better adapted to a new environment than the old environment. This is possible because heterokaryosis allows the fungus to partition different proportions of nucleotypes into their spores; a process that creates phenotypically variable offspring over time (Fig. 6b).

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Figure 6. (a) Ecto and ericoid mycorrhizal fungi (Ascomycota and Basidomycota) often have a complex mating system involving the fusion of two monokaryons to form a dikaryon. Only dikaryons produce mycorrhizal symbioses and fruiting bodies (e.g. mushrooms). Meiosis occurs in the fruiting body to create new haploid spores that are genetically different from the parents. (b) AM fungi (Glomeromycota) contain genetically different nucleotypes that can differentially segregate into new spores resulting in a change of proportion of nucleotypes, some nucleotypes can even be lost. Thus, even though clonal, AM fungi can produce genetically different offspring. (c) AM fungi often connect different plant hosts with a common mycorrhizal network, potentially leading to local variation of nucleotype frequencies and simultaneous adaptation to multiple plant species. (d) Extensive hyphal networks can span large areas with heterogeneous soil conditions, and they are hypothesised to generate fine-scale local adaptation to changing environments through this mechanism.

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Understanding the mechanisms by which organisms respond to change and acclimate or adapt to their environment is key to predicting their dynamics in a changing world. Genetic variation is required in populations for adaptation to occur in changing environments. Little is known about the genetic diversity of most naturally occurring populations of fungi; however, there is evidence that co-adaptation may maximise benefits and minimise costs of the symbiosis. A recent comparative study showed that geographical ecotypes of the AM fungus Gigaspora gigantea were most beneficial to their plant hosts when grown in their native soil (Ji et al. 2013). The high degree of genetic variation discovered in AM fungal populations (Börstler et al. 2008; Croll et al. 2008) suggests that there is a considerable amount of genetic variability within an AM fungal species on which selection could act during a change in the environment. In addition to this variation among AM fungal individuals, separation of genetic material among nuclei that are potentially mobile within the fungal mycelium could create spatial agility in adaptation. Local selection for particular nucleotypes within the hyphal network could allow different parts of individual AM fungal clones to generate rapid, fine-scale adaptation to heterogeneity of the biotic (Fig. 6c) and abiotic (Fig. 6d) environment, although this has yet to be experimentally demonstrated. A key research area is to understand the role this unique genetic system plays in adaptation to changed environments, especially in the field and also to assess how much genetic variability within and among AM fungal species contributes to the mycorrhizal response to changing environments. The role of genetic diversity for mycorrhizal adaptation is an important area for future investigation.

Application of Principles to Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Predicting Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change: Three Principles
  5. Application of Principles to Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change
  6. Future Research Directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Authorship
  9. References

Global changes can impact both plants and fungi directly, or indirectly via modifications to the symbiosis (Rillig et al. 2002; Singh et al. 2010). For example, it is generally assumed that atmospheric CO2 enrichment directly influences plants and indirectly influences fungi though increased photosynthate (Drigo et al. 2008; Fig. 1). In contrast, changes to biota and N eutrophication directly impact both plants and fungi. Understanding both individual and interactive effects of environmental changes on plants and fungi are necessary to predict the net effects of global changes on mycorrhizal symbioses.

Microbial feedbacks have been insinuated in community and ecosystem responses to global change drivers, but we currently lack sufficient knowledge to predict the relative importance, or even the direction, of these feedbacks (Singh et al. 2010). The principles of optimal allocation, biotic context and adaptability may provide a useful platform to begin to construct and test hypotheses about the mechanisms of mycorrhizal responses to global change factors and the outcomes of these responses for communities and ecosystems.

Enrichment of atmospheric CO2 and N

In the past century, human activities have increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from ~250 ppm to 385 ppm. Although there are exceptions, particularly in N-limited systems (e.g. Parrent & Vilgalys 2007), CO2 enrichment generally increases the biomass of roots and mycorrhizal fungi (Rillig et al. 2002; Drigo et al. 2008). This finding is in accord with Principle 1: if enriched atmospheric CO2 increases the production of photosynthate such that plant demand for soil nutrients increases, then allocation belowground to mycorrhizas is expected to increase.

Concurrently with CO2 enrichment, humans have more than doubled the rate of N input into the biosphere (Vitousek et al. 1997). This has been linked to changes in the species composition of communities and accelerated loss of plant diversity (Clark & Tilman 2008), and mycorrhizal fungal diversity (Lilleskov et al. 2002; Liu et al. 2012). Mycorrhizas exhibit variable responses to N enrichment, and fungal biomass has been reported to decrease, increase or remain unchanged (reviewed in Rillig et al. 2002). Nevertheless, these variable responses to N enrichment generally conform to the predictions of optimal allocation in Principle 1. A comparison of five long-term field experiments demonstrated that N enrichment caused AM colonization of roots, spore biovolume and density of extraradial hyphae (outside the root) to decrease at sites with ample soil P, and increase at a site with limited levels of soil P (Johnson et al. 2003a). We expect this pattern if plants allocate energy to structures needed to acquire the most limiting resource: adding N to P-rich soil will diminish the relative value of roots and mycorrhizas, while N enrichment of a P-limited soil will exacerbate P limitation and enhance the value of the symbioses.

There is increasing recognition of the importance of synergistic effects when multiple anthropogenic changes occur. A free air CO2 enrichment (FACE) experiment in Switzerland showed that after 10 years of treatment, the CO2 × N interaction had a significant effect on AM fungi, even though there was not a significant main effect of CO2 (Staddon et al. 2004). Interestingly, Staddon and colleagues found that when N was in limited supply (but not enriched), the formation of AM colonisation inside plant roots decreased in response to enrichment of CO2, while the density of extraradical hyphae increased. This conforms with the expectation of optimal allocation because when N is more limited than C, there should be increased growth of extraradical hyphae to forage for N. In contrast, the BioCON FACE experiment in Minnesota USA showed that CO2 enrichment significantly increased the density of extraradical hyphae, but there was no interaction with N supply (Antoninka et al. 2011). There are many possible reasons for the different findings at the two FACE experiments, including differences in the soil properties, climate and the composition of the plant and fungal communities. So while the optimal allocation principle can help predict the general direction of future shifts, differences among communities and ecosystems introduce serious variation.

The potential for mitigating rising CO2 levels though increased allocation and storage in mycorrhizas and other belowground C pools is currently debated (Kowalchuk 2012; Phillips et al. 2012; Verbruggen et al. 2013). Recent studies suggest that when atmospheric CO2 levels are elevated, mycorrhizas may actually speed up the decomposition of soil organic matter, and thus generate net C-sources rather than C-sinks (Cheng et al. 2012; Phillips et al. 2012). Even though Glomeromycota are not saprotrophic themselves, under elevated CO2, AM fungi appear to have a priming effect on bacteria and other organisms in the mycorrhizosphere such that decomposition of organic matter is accelerated. Priming appears to stimulate saprotrophic bacteria to release N which is rapidly assimilated by both fungi and plants in AM symbioses (Cheng et al. 2012). Notably, the degree to which AM fungi enhanced decomposition can vary among taxa. When grown under elevated CO2, Gigaspora margarita and Glomus clarum enhanced decomposition much more strongly than Acaulospora morrowiae (Cheng et al. 2012). This pattern is intriguing because a different research team showed that CO2 enrichment generated a very rapid shift in symbiotic partners inside plant roots from Acaulospora to Glomus (Drigo et al. 2010). This study highlights the need for future research to identify functional groups of AM fungi that may be distinguished according to their enzymatic capabilities and competitive dominance under different resource environments.

There is some evidence that altering the abiotic environment (i.e. nutrient availability) can also lead to genetic changes in AM fungi (Ehinger et al. 2009), and these changes may be linked to differences in symbiotic functioning. Adaptation of AM fungi in response to abiotic selection pressures, Principle 3, has been demonstrated previously, with researchers finding that a gradual shift in CO2 levels over 21 generations provided time for adaptation to occur and generated a much different mycorrhizal response compared to a sudden CO2 increase during a single generation (Klironomos et al. 2005). Similarly, a study at the Swiss FACE site that compared the nutritional response of white clover to colonisation by Glomus isolates derived from elevated or ambient CO2 showed that within just 8 years of CO2 treatment, the functioning of Glomus isolates diverged such that isolates from plots treated with elevated CO2 improved the N nutrition of their host plants significantly more than those in plots treated with ambient CO2 (Gamper et al. 2005; Fig. 7a). Furthermore, a larger proportion of N was derived from soil pools rather than through N-fixation (Fig. 7b). These results are in accord with the recent discoveries that CO2 enrichment generates a strong selection pressure for enhanced N uptake capacity (Cheng et al. 2012); and, that geographical isolates of AM fungi differ in their abilities to acquire N from the soil (Johnson et al. 2010; Ji et al. 2013). Does the heterokaryotic characteristic of AM fungal clones allow for rapid genetic and functional changes when fungi are exposed to changing environmental conditions (Fig. 6c, d)? More research is needed to understand these types of rapid functional changes in AM fungi.

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Figure 7. Rapid selection for efficient nutrient uptake and transfer by AM fungi can influence host plant performance in changing environments. (a) Concentration of foliar N and (b) proportion of total foliar N acquired from the soil in Trifolium repens grown with AM fungi isolated from field plots treated for 8 years with either ambient (open bars) or elevated (black bars) CO2. Data courtesy of Gamper et al. (2005), (= 7), mean  ± SE * significant difference at P ≤ 0.05.

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Research suggests that ectomycorrhizal and AM communities respond similarly to CO2 enrichment. In both type of mycorrhizas, CO2 enrichment has been shown to accelerate decomposition of soil organic matter through priming (Carney et al. 2007; Phillips et al. 2012). In ectomycorrhizal systems, the fungi, in addition to associated saprotrophic bacteria, have the enzymatic capability to break down complex organic compounds (Buée et al. 2007; Drake et al. 2011). Fourteen years of CO2 enrichment of loblolly pine at the Duke FACE site in North Carolina USA enhanced decomposition rates because of more rapid turnover of roots and EM structures in addition to a priming effect on old soil organic matter (Phillips et al. 2012). Likewise, 6 years of CO2 enrichment of a scrub-oak ecosystem in Florida USA increased production of phenol oxidase (Carney et al. 2007; Fig. 8a), a key enzyme in the decomposition of lignin and other recalcitrant organic materials; and it also increased the abundance of fungi relative to bacteria (Fig. 8b).

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Figure 8. Enzymatic activity and composition of soil microbes is influenced by 6 years of CO2 enrichment of a scrub-oak ecosystem. (a) Phenol oxidase and (b) fungus:bacteria ratios were significantly higher under elevated CO2 compared to ambient. Means ± SE (= 8 for ambient, and = 6 for elevated CO2). Data courtesy of Carney et al. 2007.

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The principles of optimal allocation, biotic context and adaptability can help explain the apparent lack of an enhanced mycorrhizal C-sink under elevated CO2. Principle 1, optimal allocation, accounts for the higher N demand in response to increased availability of labile C belowground (Hu et al. 2001). Principle 2, biotic context, predicts that fungi may become competitively dominant in CO2 enriched systems because they can better translocate nutrients and have a lower C : N ratio than bacteria. Consequently, N limitation induced by CO2 enrichment generally favours fungi over bacteria (Hu et al. 2001), with fungi utilising lignolytic enzymes to acquire recalcitrant forms of organic N under elevated CO2. Finally, Principle 3, adaptability, accounts for the rapid change in the ability of AM fungi to supply additional N to their host plants. These principles allow us to make predictions that can be tested in future experiments. For example, the optimal allocation principle predicts that CO2 enrichment of N-rich soil will not stimulate production of lignolytic enzymes because there is already ample N in the system. In this situation, the increased production of mycorrhizas under elevated CO2 may indeed increase the accrual of C in soil organic matter. Studies of mycorrhizas across more habitat types are clearly necessary before the symbiosis can be effectively managed for its role in C and N cycling.

Another challenge in managing the symbiosis for N and C cycling is that complex interactions among anthropogenic enrichment of resources and mycorrhizal feedbacks may generate large-scale state changes in communities and ecosystems. The critical threshold levels at which state changes occur are difficult to predict because of the complexity of the interactions among factors. One of the most famous examples of a state-shift related to mycorrhizas is the relationship between anthropogenic N deposition and the loss of European heathlands. These ecosystems are characterised by acidic, organic rich soils and thick stands of heather (Calluna vulgaris) with ericoid mycorrhizas that have enzyme systems capable of releasing tightly bound N from polyphenolic compounds (Fig. 3). Airborne N inputs diminish N limitation and increase biomass production, which makes P more limited. At some point during this eutrophication process a threshold is reached, and the ericoid heather loses its competitive advantage and becomes replaced by Molinia caerulea an AM grass with a lower R* for P and a higher R* for N (Aerts 2002). This example illustrates how eutrophication of a limiting resource can restructure above- and belowground feedbacks and facilitate the conversion of heathland to grassland.

The structure of grasslands may also be influenced by mycorrhizal responses to N and CO2 enrichment. In community-scale mesocosm experiments, grasses with C3 photosynthesis generally benefit less from mycorrhizas and more from CO2 enrichment compared to C4 grasses (Johnson et al. 2003b; Antoninka et al. 2009). These findings support the idea that mycorrhizas can mediate competitive interactions among different functional groups of plants and that resource availability will affect the outcome of these interactions on community diversity. Principle 2, biotic context, is relevant here because most of the problematic exotic grasses invading native North America grasslands are C3 species that are not strongly dependent on mycorrhizas (Wilson & Hartnett 1998). Invasive species and land-use change, discussed below, are among the two most important anthropogentic drivers altering mycorrhizal relationships.

Changes to biota: invasive species

Studies suggest that mycorrhizal fungi can play an important role in determining patterns of abundance and invasiveness of introduced species (Bever et al. 2010). Introduced host plants have been shown to alter closely interlinked ecological relationships, many of which have co-evolved within native systems (Inderjit & van der Putten 2010). Although subtle, and rarely studied, these re-organisation processes are likely very common responses to global change that can decrease the efficacy of symbiotic partnerships and potentially lead to long-term, system-wide changes.

When invasive plants are introduced, at least three microbially mediated outcomes have been identified (Bever et al. 2010; Inderjit & van der Putten 2010; Fig. 9). All three outcomes can be linked to biotic context (Principle 2), and adaptability (Principle 3). One possibility is an ‘enhanced mutualism response’ in which native mutualisms facilitate the success of invading plant species (Reinhart & Callaway 2006). Mycorrhizas have been shown to facilitate the spread of non-native plants from low to super high abundance if the invading plant species benefits more from the symbioses than the indigenous plants. For example, spotted knapweed, Centaurea maculosa (Fig. 9a), is a noxious perennial plant that appears to generate an enhanced mutualism with native AM fungi. Many invading plant species exhibit higher growth rates than endemic species (e.g. van Kleunen et al. 2010a), and associating with native AM symbionts may facilitate this process by allowing them to gain access to more nutrients to support this growth. This highly efficient mycorrhizal partnership has likely facilitated the spread of knapweed throughout much of the native prairie in the northwestern USA (Harner et al. 2010). More generally, mutualistic facilitation of plant invasion arises when AM fungi alter nutrient uptake, competitive dynamics, successional changes and/or plant–herbivore interactions to the advantage of the exotic species and detriment of the native species (Shah et al. 2009). In furthering Principle 2, ecologists are designing new tools for assessing the determinants of invasiveness (van Kleunen et al. 2010b), which will eventually facilitate a more systematic approach to predicting mycorrhizal response to invasive species.

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Figure 9. Examples of three microbially mediated outcomes of plant species invasion. (a) Enhanced mutualistic response – Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) relies on AM fungi to aid its invasion of the Bitterroot Valley grasslands in Western mountain ranges of the USA (photo: Dan Mummey). (b) Degraded mutualism response – Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), an invasive species in North America, has been shown to facilitate its spread by disrupting mycorrhizal associations (photo: Ben Wolfe). (c) Mutualistic barrier – Invasive pines (i.e. Pinus contorta) only became a problem when appropriate fungal symbionts were introduced to the environment (photo: Jon Sullivan).

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It has been predicted that enhanced mutualistic responses are also most likely to emerge when the invasive hosts associate with widespread, generalist AM fungal taxa, rather than specialised taxa (Moora et al. 2011). This is in accord with Principle 3, mycorrhizal fungal adaptability. One idea is that the wide host range observed in AM fungi may be maintained by co-existence of genetically different nuclei and that the fungus can maximise its fitness in a given host by an alteration in the relative frequency of genetically different nuclei. There is some evidence for this in the study by Ehinger et al. 2009; in which small genetic changes were observed in clonal AM fungal lines when grown on different host plants. If true, then this would mean that AM fungi could have the capacity to rapidly adapt to new invasive plant species. In these cases, the native plant species may disappear, but the native, generalist fungi, which are now better adapted to the invasive host, remains in symbiosis with the invasive species. A similar response may occur in host plants as well: one recent case documented a generally non-mycorrhizal invasive plant species hybridising with a generally mycorrhizal native species to produce invasive offspring that benefited from the mycorrhizal association (Eberl 2011).

A second microbially mediated outcome occurs when a non-native plant species reduces the densities of native fungal symbionts and causes the subsequent loss of native host plants (Wilson et al. 2012). Entitled the ‘degraded mutualism hypothesis this outcome is possible when native plants are more dependent on mycorrhizal symbioses than invasive species (Shah et al. 2009) and/or invasive species directly degrade microbial targets (Cipollini et al. 2012). Invasion by non-native plants with low mycorrhizal dependencies can reduce mycorrhizal fungal densities in the soil, further facilitating invasion by non-mycorrhizal plants (Vogelsang & Bever 2009). This has been shown repeatedly across different mycorrhizal types (Shah et al. 2009; Castellano & Gorchov 2012), and can lead to long-term legacy effects, even after the invasive species has been removed (Meinhardt & Gehring 2012).

In some extreme cases, an introduced plant species can be lethal for the native symbiosis (Cipollini et al. 2012). A well-known example involves Alliaria petiolata (Fig. 9b), a European invader of North American forests, which suppresses native plant growth by actively disrupting mutualistic associations between native canopy tree seedlings and both AM (Stinson et al. 2006) and ectomycorrhizal (Wolfe et al. 2008) fungi. Suppression of North American mycorrhizal fungi by A. petiolata corresponds to decreased growth of North American plant species that rely heavily on fungal symbionts (Callaway et al. 2008) and changes in AM fungal community composition (Barto et al. 2011).

A third outcome is that an introduced plant species is unable to establish because the new habitat is void of the appropriate symbiont. In accordance with Principle 2, host fitness will depend strongly on the biotic context: in these cases, the lack of specific mycorrhizal propagules can be a critical factor in slowing invasion of fragile habitats. For example, initial plantings of pine (Pinus sp.; Fig. 9c) in the southern hemisphere often failed because of the absence of the necessary ectomycorrhizal fungi (reviewed in Pringle et al. 2009). Ironically, after the appropriate fungal symbionts are introduced to the environment, pine has become a problematic invasive species in many areas of the world (Nuñez et al. 2009). Exotic pine species have been shown to host exotic ectomycorrhizal fungi, and their spread into new habitats is essentially a co-invasion of exotic fungi and its host (Dickie et al. 2010). Although some attention has been paid to the potential dangers of the application of commercial products to purposely introduce mycorrhizal fungal inoculum into novel habitats (e.g. Schwartz et al. 2006), this area requires more research, especially in situations where fungi introduced as inoculum can become invasive (Jairus et al. 2011), or can facilitate invasion of exotic plant species.

Changes to biota: land-use changes

Humans have fragmented or removed over half of the global and temperate broadleaf and mixed forests, and roughly one quarter of the tropical rainforests (Wade et al. 2003). This is worrying because forests store ~45% of terrestrial C and contribute ~50% of terrestrial net primary production (Bonan 2008). Similar to invasions by introduced species, land-use change can dramatically alter native mycorrhizal symbioses, forcing changes in the aboveground community, and revealing feedbacks in the belowground community. At a global scale, the loss of forests and heathlands and the gain of deserts and croplands will reduce the abundance of ecto and ericoid mycorrhizas and increase the abundance of arbuscular mycorrhizas (Fig. 3). These changes may have major impacts on soil properties, heterotrophic respiration and the potential for belowground C sequestration.

A review of the literature suggests that if clear-cut forests are replanted with tree seedlings, mycorrhizal colonisation of the seedlings is generally not reduced; however, there are often dramatic shifts in the species composition of ectomycorrhizal fungi (Jones et al. 2003; Curlevski et al. 2010). These changes in fungal communities are likely driven by physical, chemical and biological changes in the reforested environment. It has been suggested that post-disturbance communities of ectomycorrhizal fungi may better aid their hosts under the altered environmental conditions (Jones et al. 2003). This seems likely because the deforestation and reforestation process is likely to have a dramatic impact on the organic horizon of the forest floor and species of ectomycorrhizal fungi differ in their enzymatic capabilities to acquire nutrients from detritus (Buée et al. 2007; Pritsch & Garbaye 2011). Future studies are needed to determine whether symbiotic function and fungal fitness are optimised in the mycorrhizas that reassemble following disturbance.

Conversion of diverse natural forests to plantations of exotic tree species may reduce species richness as well as change the composition of the native community of mycorrhizal fungi. Introduced Pinus contorta in New Zealand was found to host only 14 fungal species (93% were exotic), while co-occurring endemic Nothofagus solandri hosted 98 species of native ectomycorrhizal fungi (Dickie et al. 2010). A comprehensive study suggested that even if species richness of ectomycorrhizal fungal communities is maintained, the species composition is generally altered when native forests are converted to plantations (O'Hanlon & Harrington 2012). This result was confirmed in a study investigating the effects of conversion of native forest to avocado plantations; differences in mycorrhizal composition, but not richness, were found (Gonzalez-Cortes et al. 2012). In accordance with Principle 2, changes in species composition can have strong functional consequences for biotic interactions, raising the risk that future conversion back to native forest will be problematic. For example, changes in the community composition of mycorrhizal fungi have been shown to constrain the re-establishment of desired flora (William et al. 2011).

Tropical forest fragmentation and conversion to agricultural systems has been shown to negatively affect AM fungal interactions, with root colonisation, spore diversity and spore abundance positively correlated to fragment size, which is also negatively correlated with soil N and P availability (Grilli et al. 2012). In accordance with Principle 1, optimal allocation, we would expect higher soil fertility in fragmented plots to be correlated with a reduction in mycorrhizal fungi, as was found (Fig. 10).

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Figure 10. Relationship between fragment size of Chaco forest in Co′rdoba, Argentina and the abundance of mycorrhizas, and the availability soil P, and N. Top left, total mycorrhizal colonisation of roots from Euphorbia acerensis (filled diamond) and E. dentate (open square). Top right, abundance of AM fungal spore abundance per 100 g of soil. Bottom left, concentration of soil P (ppm). Bottom right, concentration of soil NH4+ (ppm). Means ± SE (= 8). Data courtesy Grilli et al. 2012.

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With a growing interest in the functioning of mycorrhizal communities in agricultural systems, significant progress has been made in studying how land management regimes affects AM fungal communities. For instance, differences in the composition of fungal communities are often noted in high vs. low tillage regimes (Alguacil et al. 2008) and when grasslands, organic and conventional agricultural systems are compared (Verbruggen et al. 2010). These studies indicate that disturbances such as tillage – which disrupts AM hyphal networks – can negatively affect crop-mycorrhizal interactions compared to when hyphal networks are left intact (Verbruggen & Kiers 2010). Principle 3 suggests that intact networks of AM fungi have the ability to adapt rapidly to environmental changes by alterations in nucleotype frequencies within hyphal networks. This could explain the surprising resilience of AM fungal communities when, for example, fires drove the conversion of a Costa Rican dry tropical forest to a monoculture of African grass (Johnson & Wedin 1997). Whether all mycorrhizal communities can recover when land is restored after disturbance is far from clear: long-term effects of disturbance appear to be very site specific (e.g. Tedersoo et al. 2011). Understanding the patterns of recovery after major and minor land-use changes is critical for predicting community level responses. This knowledge hinges on first understanding the composition of mycorrhizal fungal communities in natural undisturbed ecosystems. Very few studies have assessed mycorrhizal fungi in natural habitats and there is an urgent need to recognise the importance of protecting natural areas for the preservation of these unseen, but important organisms so that future studies can use these as reference sites to guide ecosystem restoration efforts (Turrini & Giovannetti 2012).

Although loss of biodiversity is a major concern, loss of global carbon stores may be an even more pressing issue under current global change trajectories. The density of mycorrhizal hyphae in grasslands is often strongly correlated with soil organic C content (Wilson et al. 2009). Over the past century, natural grasslands have been increasingly converted to cropland, accelerating soil erosion, land degradation and releasing soil organic C stores (Qiu et al. 2012). Although careful management of ectomycorrhizas may help increase soil C sequestration within forest ecosystems (Hoeksema & Classen 2012), conversion of natural grasslands into tree plantations for C mitigation projects may be misguided. This is particularly true if ectomycorrhizal fungi that are introduced with the exotic trees may access C pools not available to the native AM fungi and actually increase C lost through respiration (Chapela et al. 2001). Does the short-term gain of an aboveground C-sink (wood) outweigh the long-term loss of a belowground C storage in recalcitrant organic compounds (Drake et al. 2011)? Given the current trajectory of land conversion as demands for food and agricultural commodities rise, more research is needed to provide reliable estimates of long-term C storage in above and belowground reservoirs across different types of ecosystems (Reich 2011). Mycorrhizas are an important component of belowground C-budgets and projections of future C-dynamics (Drake et al. 2011).

Future Research Directions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Predicting Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change: Three Principles
  5. Application of Principles to Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change
  6. Future Research Directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Authorship
  9. References

Development of strategies to conserve and manage mycorrhizas for their benefits in food and fibre production, soil stabilisation, belowground C sequestration and natural area and biodiversity protection will require a coordinated effort. Recent advances in technological platforms, computation science and electronic communication will provide the opportunity to integrate knowledge across disciplines and interest groups to generate an increasingly comprehensive understanding of the role of mycorrhizal symbioses in ecosystems. This will be driven by collaborative research among a diversity of workers. We envision that contributions by five different groups will be particularly useful:

  1. Partnerships with foresters, agronomists and ecosystem scientists to sample mycorrhizas in plants and soils across a global-scale gradient of biomes including all major arable systems and soil types. This effort should be coordinated with ongoing long-term research networks and utilise existing data sets to the fullest possible extent.
  2. Collaborations with molecular biologists to apply high throughput technologies to look for hypothesised functional patterns in the samples collected from around the world. This effort should use a ‘community genetics’ approach and analyse whole assemblages of genotypes with the ultimate aim of linking the genes to ecosystem processes (e.g. He et al. 2010; Johnson et al. 2012). This analysis should also focus on the level of individual organisms to assess the genetic variability within populations of mycorrhizal fungi and their hosts. This information is necessary to test hypotheses about the tempo and mode of mycorrhizal responses to a changing environment.
  3. Collaborations with biochemists to identify the enzyme systems expected for catabolism of the dominant organic and inorganic forms of essential soil nutrients under different chemical and physical environments. This knowledge will inform hypotheses about the potential role for mycorrhizas in C, N and P dynamics in changing environments.
  4. Work together with systems modellers to incorporate mycorrhizas into currently existing (e.g. Meyer et al. 2010; Orwin et al. 2011) and new models to test hypotheses about the role of soil feedbacks for C-dynamics (including sequestration), erosion, nutrient retention, ecosystem productivity and climate.
  5. Perhaps most importantly, research findings should be used to inform resource management. This requires direct participation of the people (farmers, foresters and land managers, etc.) who are conducting the management actions on a day-to-day basis. They are essential in providing the solid grounding and a practical perspective on the systems that we are trying to understand.

The potential to mitigate undesirable effects of anthropogenic changes to the environment is a ‘tantalising prospect for the future’, that will require a coordinated effort of reductionist and multifactorial approaches (Singh et al. 2010). Granting agencies are increasingly providing support for crosscutting research efforts. There is no better time for mycorrhizal researchers to develop ‘mutualistic associations’ with co-workers in other fields.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Predicting Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change: Three Principles
  5. Application of Principles to Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change
  6. Future Research Directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Authorship
  9. References

We thank M. Rillig for logistical support and Matthew Bowker for helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. Nancy C. Johnson is funded by the National Science Foundation of the USA (DEB-0842327); E.T. Kiers is funded by the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO) ‘vidi’ and ‘meervoud’ grants; I.R. Sanders is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (31003A-127371); and C. Angelard is funded by a Marie Curie Outgoing International Fellowship within the 7th European Community Framework Program (PIOF_GA_2009-251712). We apologise to the many authors of relevant papers that could not be cited due to space constraints.

Authorship

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Predicting Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change: Three Principles
  5. Application of Principles to Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change
  6. Future Research Directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Authorship
  9. References

NCJ developed the conceptual framework and wrote many sections of the manuscript. Throughout all stages, ETK provided ideas and editorial suggestions. Also, ETK wrote the sections on invasive species and land-use change. IRS and CA wrote the sections on genetic mechanisms, and ‘principle 3’, in particular. CA created almost all of the Figures.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Predicting Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change: Three Principles
  5. Application of Principles to Mycorrhizal Responses to Global Change
  6. Future Research Directions
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Authorship
  9. References