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Fungal specificity bottlenecks during orchid germination and development


Martin I. Bidartondo, Fax: 44 (0) 208 332 5379; E-mail:


Fungus-subsidized growth through the seedling stage is the most critical feature of the life history for the thousands of mycorrhizal plant species that propagate by means of ‘dust seeds.’ We investigated the extent of specificity towards fungi shown by orchids in the genera Cephalanthera and Epipactis at three stages of their life cycle: (i) initiation of germination, (ii) during seedling development, and (iii) in the mature photosynthetic plant. It is known that in the mature phase, plants of these genera can be mycorrhizal with a number of fungi that are simultaneously ectomycorrhizal with the roots of neighbouring forest trees. The extent to which earlier developmental stages use the same or a distinctive suite of fungi was unclear. To address this question, a total of 1500 packets containing orchid seeds were buried for up to 3 years in diverse European forest sites which either supported or lacked populations of helleborine orchids. After harvest, the fungi associated with the three developmental stages, and with tree roots, were identified via cultivation-independent molecular methods. While our results show that most fungal symbionts are ectomycorrhizal, differences were observed between orchids in the representation of fungi at the three life stages. In Cephalanthera damasonium and C. longifolia, the fungi detected in seedlings were only a subset of the wider range seen in germinating seeds and mature plants. In Epipactis atrorubens, the fungi detected were similar at all three life stages, but different fungal lineages produced a difference in seedling germination performance. Our results demonstrate that there can be a narrow checkpoint for mycorrhizal range during seedling growth relative to the more promiscuous germination and mature stages of these plants’ life cycle.