Among European Neottieae, Limodorum abortivum is a common Mediterranean orchid. It forms small populations with a patchy distribution in woodlands, and is characterized by much reduced leaves, suggesting a partial mycoheterotrophy. We have investigated both the photosynthetic abilities of L. abortivum adult plants and the diversity of mycorrhizal fungi in Limodorum plants growing in different environments and plant communities (coniferous and broadleaf forests) over a wide geographical and altitudinal range. Despite the presence of photosynthetic pigments, CO2 fixation was found to be insufficient to compensate for respiration in adult plants. Fungal diversity was assessed by morphological and molecular methods in L. abortivum as well as in the related rare species Limodorum trabutianum and Limodorum brulloi. Phylogenetic analyses of the fungal internal transcribed spacer (ITS) sequences, obtained from root samples of about 80 plants, revealed a tendency to associate predominantly with fungal symbionts of the genus Russula. Based on sequence similarities with known species, most root endophytes could be ascribed to the species complex encompassing Russula delica, Russula chloroides, and Russula brevipes. Few sequences clustered in separate groups nested within Russula, a genus of ectomycorrhizal fungi. The morphotypes of ectomycorrhizal root tips of surrounding trees yielded sequences similar or identical to those obtained from L. abortivum. These results demonstrate that Limodorum species with inefficient photosynthesis specifically associate with ectomycorrhizal fungi, and appear to have adopted a nutrition strategy similar to that known from achlorophyllous orchids.
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