Biological weathering and the long-term carbon cycle: integrating mycorrhizal evolution and function into the current paradigm


David J. Beerling. Tel.: (+44) (0) 114 222 4359; fax: (+44) (0) 114 222 0002; e-mail:


The dramatic decline in atmospheric CO2 evidenced by proxy data during the Devonian (416.0–359.2 Ma) and the gradual decline from the Cretaceous (145.5–65.5 Ma) onwards have been linked to the spread of deeply rooted trees and the rise of angiosperms, respectively. But this paradigm overlooks the coevolution of roots with the major groups of symbiotic fungal partners that have dominated terrestrial ecosystems throughout Earth history. The colonization of land by plants was coincident with the rise of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), while the Cenozoic (c. 65.5–0 Ma) witnessed the rise of ectomycorrhizal fungi (EMF) that associate with both gymnosperm and angiosperm tree roots. Here, we critically review evidence for the influence of AMF and EMF on mineral weathering processes. We show that the key weathering processes underpinning the current paradigm and ascribed to plants are actually driven by the combined activities of roots and mycorrhizal fungi. Fuelled by substantial amounts of recent photosynthate transported from shoots to roots, these fungi form extensive mycelial networks which extend into soil actively foraging for nutrients by altering minerals through the acidification of the immediate root environment. EMF aggressively weather minerals through the additional mechanism of releasing low molecular weight organic chelators. Rates of biotic weathering might therefore be more usefully conceptualized as being fundamentally controlled by the biomass, surface area of contact, and capacity of roots and their mycorrhizal fungal partners to interact physically and chemically with minerals. All of these activities are ultimately controlled by rates of carbon-energy supply from photosynthetic organisms. The weathering functions in leading carbon cycle models require experiments and field studies of evolutionary grades of plants with appropriate mycorrhizal associations. Representation of the coevolution of roots and fungi in geochemical carbon cycle models is required to further our understanding of the role of the biota in Earth's CO2 and climate history.