Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 394–407
Mycorrhizal fungi influence plant growth, local biodiversity and ecosystem function. Effects of the symbiosis on plants span the continuum from mutualism to parasitism. We sought to understand this variation in symbiotic function using meta-analysis with information theory-based model selection to assess the relative importance of factors in five categories: (1) identity of the host plant and its functional characteristics, (2) identity and type of mycorrhizal fungi (arbuscular mycorrhizal vs. ectomycorrhizal), (3) soil fertility, (4) biotic complexity of the soil and (5) experimental location (laboratory vs. field). Across most subsets of the data, host plant functional group and N-fertilization were surprisingly much more important in predicting plant responses to mycorrhizal inoculation (‘plant response’) than other factors. Non-N-fixing forbs and woody plants and C4 grasses responded more positively to mycorrhizal inoculation than plants with N-fixing bacterial symbionts and C3 grasses. In laboratory studies of the arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis, plant response was more positive when the soil community was more complex. Univariate analyses supported the hypothesis that plant response is most positive when plants are P-limited rather than N-limited. These results emphasize that mycorrhizal function depends on both abiotic and biotic context, and have implications for plant community theory and restoration ecology.