One of the most dramatic effects of infection by vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi on the physiology of the host plant is an increase in phosphorus absorption. When phosphorus is limiting, the maximum extent to which mycorrhizal infection can improve plant performance is thus predicted to be a function of the phosphorus deficit of the plant, the difference between phosphorus demand and phosphorus supply. Phosphorus demand is defined as the rate of phosphorus absorption that would result in optimum performance of the plant as measured by growth rate, reproduction or fitness. The phosphorus supply is defined as the actual rate of phosphorus absorption under the prevailing conditions. Variation among plant taxa in morphological, physiological or phenological traits which affect either phosphorus demand or phosphorus supply (and thus phosphorus deficit) is predicted to lead to variation in potential response to mycorrhizal infection. The actual response to mycorrhizal infection is predicted to be a function of the increase in phosphorus uptake due to mycorrhizal infection and the phosphorus utilization efficiency of the plant. Demonstrated variability in responsiveness to mycorrhizal infection among plant taxa suggests that mycorrhizal fungi may play an important role in determining the structure of plant communities.
Mycorrhizal infection may alter the phosphorus deficit or phosphorus utilization efficiency independently from its direct effect on phosphorus uptake, making the prediction of response to mycorrhizal infection based on the traits of non-mycorrhizal plants quite difficult. For example, infection may at times increase the rate of phosphorus accumulation beyond that which can be currently utilized in growth, reducing the current phosphorus utilization efficiency. Such momentary ‘luxury consumption’ of phosphorus may, however, serve a storage function and be utilized subsequently, allowing mycorrhizal plants ultimately to outperform non-mycorrhizal plants.