- Symbioses between plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi are thought to enhance plant uptake of nutrients through a favourable exchange for photosynthates. Ectomycorrhizal fungi are considered to play this vital role for trees in nitrogen (N)-limited boreal forests.
- We followed symbiotic carbon (C)–N exchange in a large-scale boreal pine forest experiment by tracing 13CO2 absorbed through tree photosynthesis and 15N injected into a soil layer in which ectomycorrhizal fungi dominate the microbial community.
- We detected little 15N in tree canopies, but high levels in soil microbes and in mycorrhizal root tips, illustrating effective soil N immobilization, especially in late summer, when tree belowground C allocation was high. Additions of N fertilizer to the soil before labelling shifted the incorporation of 15N from soil microbes and root tips to tree foliage.
- These results were tested in a model for C–N exchange between trees and mycorrhizal fungi, suggesting that ectomycorrhizal fungi transfer small fractions of absorbed N to trees under N-limited conditions, but larger fractions if more N is available. We suggest that greater allocation of C from trees to ectomycorrhizal fungi increases N retention in soil mycelium, driving boreal forests towards more severe N limitation at low N supply.