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Ectomycorrhizal colonization slows root decomposition: the post-mortem fungal legacy


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The amount of carbon plants allocate to mycorrhizal symbionts exceeds that emitted by human activity annually. Senescent ectomycorrhizal roots represent a large input of carbon into soils, but their fate remains unknown. Here, we present the surprising result that, despite much higher nitrogen concentrations, roots colonized by ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi lost only one-third as much carbon as non-mycorrhizal roots after 2 years of decomposition in a piñon pine (Pinus edulis) woodland. Experimentally excluding live mycorrhizal hyphae from litter, we found that live mycorrhizal hyphae may alter nitrogen dynamics, but the afterlife (litter-mediated) effects of EM fungi outweigh the influences of live fungi on root decomposition. Our findings indicate that a shift in plant allocation to mycorrhizal fungi could promote carbon accumulation in soil by this pathway. Furthermore, EM litters could directly contribute to the process of stable soil organic matter formation, a mechanism that has eluded soil scientists.

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