Socialism in soil? The importance of mycorrhizal fungal networks for facilitation in natural ecosystems


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1. Almost all plants are engaged in symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi. These soil fungi can promote plant growth by supplying limiting nutrients to plant roots in return for plant assimilates.

2. Many mycorrhizal fungi are not host specific and one fungal individual can colonize and interconnect a considerable number of plants. The existence of these so-called mycorrhizal networks implies that fungi have the potential to facilitate growth of other plants and distribute resources among plants irrespective of their size, status or identity. In this paper, we explore the significance of mycorrhizal fungal networks for individual plants and for plant communities.

3. We address the following questions: (i) are all plant species benefitting from mycorrhizal networks, (ii) is benefit dependent on the size or age of a plant, (iii) is fungal support related to the relative dominance of plants in a community, (iv) are there host dependent barriers and physiological constraints for support and (v) what is the impact of mycorrhizal networks on plant–plant interactions and plant community dynamics? Moreover, using a review of published studies, we test whether mycorrhizal networks facilitate growth of small seedlings that establish between or near larger plants.

4. We found 60 cases where seedling species were grown together with larger plants with or without mycorrhizal fungal networks. Mycorrhizal networks promoted seedling growth in 48% of the cases (for 21 seedling species), while negative effects (25%) and no effects (27%) were also common. Seedlings associating with ectomycorrhizal fungi benefitted in the majority of the cases while effects on seedlings associating with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi were more variable. Thus, the facilitative effects of mycorrhizal fungal networks depend on seedling species identity, mycorrhizal identity, plant species combinations and study system. We present a number of hypothetical scenarios that can explain the results based on cost–benefit relationship of individual members in a network.

5.Synthesis. Overall, this review shows that mycorrhizal networks play a key role in plant communities by facilitating and influencing seedling establishment, by altering plant–plant interactions and by supplying and recycling nutrients.