Ectomycorrhizas, the dominating mycorrhizal symbiosis in boreal, temperate and some tropical forests, are formed by 5000–6000 species of the asco- and basidiomycetes. This high diversity of fungal partners allows optimal foraging and mobilisation of various nitrogen and phosphorus forms from organic soil layers. In this review, two approaches to study the functioning of this multitude of symbiotic associations are presented. On selected culture models, physiological and molecular investigations have shown that the supply of hexoses has a key function in controlling the plant–fungus interaction via partner-specific regulation of gene expression. Environmental factors which affect fungal carbon supply, such as increased nitrogen availability, also affect mycorrhiza formation. Based on such laboratory results, the adaptative capability of ectomycorrhizas to changing field conditions is discussed. The second approach consists of analysing the distribution of mycorrhizas in ecosystem compartments and to relate distribution patterns to variations of ecological factors. Recent advances in identification of fungal partners in ectomycorrhizas by analysing the internal transcribed spacer of ribosomal DNA are presented, which can help to resolve sampling problems in field studies. The limits of the laboratory and the field approaches are discussed. Despite some problems, this combined approach is the most promising. Direct investigation of gene expression, which has been introduced for soil bacteria, will be difficult in the case of mycorrhizal fungi which constitute organisms with functionally varying structures.