top of page

MYCORRHIZAL SYMBIOSIS: How it works for plants & fungal partners, the costs & benefits

MYCORRHIZAL SYMBIOSIS: "myco" means "fungus", & "rrhiza" means "root", i.e "mycorrhizal symbiosis" literally means "fungus-root partnerships"


The following sub-topics of mycorrhizal symbioses are detailed & brief analysie of 2-species / population interactions, examining the effects or outcomes of plant-plant, plant-fungal, & plant-fungal-plant relationships & environmental impacts on the growth & survival of 2 species & or populations.


Mutually beneficial plant-fungal interactions (+/+): "mutualisms" or "proto-cooperation" ?

Symbiotic or 'host' plants with actively photosynthetic shoots & or leaves provide roots & their mycorrhizal fungal partners with Carbon, i.e sugars / energy. In exchange mycorrhizal fungi provide their plant 'hosts' with mineral nutrients and water.

In the scientific literature describing mycorrhizal symbiosis, it is relatively common for researchers & educators to refer to mycorrhizas (aka "mycorrhizae") as "mutualisms".  Is this regular use of the term 'mutualisms' to describe mycorrhizal benefits an example of subjectivity of science writers? ... or an ethusiastic passion for all things symbiotic? ... or else an attempt to redress a common opinion amoung growers that all or most fungi are crop diseases, pests, parasites or decay organisms, instead of being a symptom of healthy soils & plant roots?

In contrast to the energy needs of most obligately symbiotic  mycorrhizal fungi, most plants can use photosynthesis to produce their own energy needs.  With very few exceptions, most plants are able to survive & reproduce in soils or 'soil-less' growing media that contain adequate plant available nutrients. Population ecologist the Late Eugene Odum used the term "prot-cooperation" to define non-obligate mutually beneficial inter-species relationships. 

Commensal (0/+) plant to plant interactions via a shared  mycorrhizal fungal partner:

The image above visually illustrates that different aged Pinus sylvestrus seedlings can share a common underground network of the same species of ecto-mycorrhizal fungi. Read (1997) The laboratory use of glass-sided chambers as used to provide the above image, are sometimes also fitted with an ultra-fine nylon mesh to exclude roots but allow smaller diameter fungal mycelia to connect adjacent soil compartments & plants.


Radioactive chemical isotope tracer based evidence can been used to corroborate visual based root chamber observations in the laboratory. However it is more difficult but not impossible to conduct similar field studies to show that underground networks of mycorrhizal soil mycelia can connect different plant species compatible with the same species of mycorrhizal fungiplant & enable plants to be connected to one another by a common mycelium inter-plant transfer. Studies of CarbonNitrogen,& Phosphorus inter-plant transfer via interconnecting mycelia has been measured frequently in laboratory experiments, but it is not as easy to prove whether such transfer is bidirectional, whether there is a net gain by one plant over its fungal connected partner, or whether trans-fungal transfer affects plant performance in the fielld.


Using laboratory-based isotope tracer studies it has been shown that the magnitude of one-way transfer can be influenced by shading of 'receiver' plants, fertilization of 'donor' plants with phosphorus, or use of nitrogen-fixing donor plants and non-nitrogen-fixing receiver plants, thus indicating that movement may be governed by source–sink relationships.


Parasitic (+/-) fungal/plant interactions? ; & or Competitive (-/-) resource type fungal/plant interactions?

During winter in temperate climates deciduous plants lose their leaves & thus are unable use photosynthesis to make sugars to share with mycorrhizal fungal partners. The reduced availability of winter season sunlight causes simillar changes in the available energy budgets & reduced photosynthesis ability of evergreen plants & their root-fungal mycorrhizal partners. Under these light-limiting seasonal circumstances, it is possible to record evidence of reduced growth in plants that have mycorrhizal fungal partners, & likewise increased plant growth in the same plant species grown under identical environmental conditions, but without mycorrhizal fungal partners. 

Amensal (0/-) or (-/0) fungal/plant interactions  ( & or absense of fungal/plant symbiotic inter​actions )

Mycorrhizal fungal partners that do not have a capacity to decompose non-living organic matter are obligately dependant on living 'host plant' partner(s) for photosynthetically derived energy (carbohydrates).


Many seedling plants & mature plants are capable of being  grown in soils or in soil-less growing media if provided with required plant nurtrients, but in the absense of a mycorrhizal fungi. Such non-symbiotic (axenic) plant growing conditions may have negligible or neutral (0) effects on plant growth, health, or survival; whilst the absense of a plant host is detrimental (-) to the extent of being prohibitive of mycorrhizal fungal populations. Thus, as defined by population ecologists the Late Eugene Odum, & Arthur Boughey, the absense of plant/arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal interactions is a (0/-) amensarelationship.  

Similarly, there is an increased use of anti-fungal or mycorrhizal inhibitive, i.e. (0/-) amensal horticultural practices, including soil fumigation, fungicides, intensive soil tillage, & mono-culture rotations of 'non-host' crops & green manures, & 'non-host' weed infestations (e.g. brassica, beet & amaranth families, lupins & buckwheat) in arable crops, horticultural orchards, & market garden crops.

Allelopathic (+/-), &  or Mutually Inhibitive, or Directly Competitive (-/-) plant/plant & or fungal/plant symbiotic interactions

Some plant species produce chemicals (poisons) in their leaves & or roots that when emitted into adjacent soils inhibit the germination of plant seeds, or else act as 'natural herbicides' to adjacently growing plants of the same or different plant species, this phenomenon is called "allelopathy".  


In the dry soils of the 'McKenzie Coutry' inland district in the South Island of New Zealand, a common invasive exotic weed Hieracium pilosella aka 'mouse-ear hawkweed' is an 'auto-allelopathic' (i.e. self-inhibiting) problem plant species which displaces most plants in close proximity.  "Hawkweed" is a perenial weed belonging to the Ateraceae family with a short growth habit that is, creeping, rosette-based, mat-forming, often in dense colonies that exclude all other vegetation. Hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella) & similarly Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) are common examples of alellopathic (+/-) relationships, i.e. iether benefiting (+) itself whilst inhibing other plants (-); or else 'auto-allelopathic'& mutually inhibitive plant/plant direct competition (-/-) within it's own species.


Although ectomycorrhizal dominant forest trees are rare in New Zealand, & thereare very few native deciduous trees, native ecto-mycorrhizal beech forests (Nothofagus genus) can often form relatively monociultural plant communities, i.e low species diversity forest floors. However, compared to Northern Hemisphere deciduous & coniferous forests, it is relatively more rare in New Zealand to encounter fungal/plant alleopathic (+/-)) interactions. Fungal/plant allelopathy is more in European countries with a heritage of naturally occuring ecto-mycorrhizal fungi that produce very valuable underground truffles (aka 'endogonaceous') mycorrhizal fungal fruiting bodies. 


The terms 'brûlé' and 'burnt' are used to describe vegetation-devoid areas of the ground around a range of woody plants interacting with certain truffle fungal species. There is compelling evidence that ecto-mycorrhizal mycelia, & fruiting bodies of brûlé-forming truffles have evolved diffusible metabolites for their survival, typically characterized as having harmful effects on weeds, impairing seed germination, altering root morphogenesis and plant hormonal balance, or inhibiting the native rhizospheric microflora regularly associated with the brûlé. These effects can be widely interpreted as (+/-) allelopathic fungal/plant phenomena.

Thus, 'mycorrhizal symbiosis' is not always a mutually beneficial (+/+) interaction, but instead is more accurately descibed as a continuum of 2-species interactions (+/+); (+/0); (0/0); (-/0); (-/-), (+/-) & (-/+) or  relationships; & is more often being depicteded as such by a growing number of mycorrhiza scientists ("mycorrhizologists") including:

  1. Prof. Nancy Collins Johnson, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, U.S.A.

  2. Prof Andrew Smith, University of Adelaide, Australia

For further analyses of population ecology issues adressed above, see information & images in other sections this website including:

 Use mouse over moving images slideshow  to read further comments , use װ to pause ;  or use ►, > , or < to continue playing images

Crop & "Weed-Wide-Web"
"Companion Planting
Plant roots share access to nutrients and water from a common 'network' of mycorrhizal fungal threads (soil fungal 'mycelia' or 'hyphae').
"Commensalism" (0/+) species interactions including so-called 'nurse-plant' effects or  (plant/fungal/plant  interactions) ; i.e. many plants may share access to nutrients and water from the same soil fungal partner(s). This can benefit mycorrhizal fungi and nearby seedlings growing in the sun and shade .
Mutual benefits from mycorrhizal symbioses (partnerships) can occur when in exchange for soil fungal-derived nutrients and water, mycorrhizal fungi receive energy (sugars) derived from photosynthesis in plant leaves of one or many plant partners.
"Talking Trees ? "
Inter-plant Communications
Recent research about resource exchanges between  plant and fungal mycorrhizal partners has begun to focus on 'weird and wonderful' and previously unknown exchanges of chemical & electrical signals between plants, transmitted via common networks of soil fungi connecting plant roots in a manner analogous to land-line telephone and internet networks of copper wires, or fibre-optic cables. 
"Is this really new?" I can hear some of you older readers ask. In fact, similar concepts were the talk of many people back in 1973 when author Lyall Watson a published a book "Supernature" ... & again in 1987 "Beyond Supernature: A new natural history of the supernatural"
O.K. ... I'm a university educated plant biologist & soil ecology scientist, & this so-called 'New Age Philosophy' isn't for everybody, ... I'm not making any judgements here, however, we don't know what we don't know if we can't or haven't measured it yet :-)
To view YouTube video modern interpretations of inter-plant plant communication or 'talking trees' see: 
  1. The whispering world of plants: "The Wood Wide Web” (Courtesy: BBC)
  2. What Plants Talk About
  3. BBC: How Plants Communicate & Think - Amazing Nature Documentary
  4. BBC earth: Plants talk to each other using an internet of fungus
  5. Plants use an internet made of fungus
  6. Plants Use Underground 'Fungal Internet' to Communicate
  8. How Plants Communicate Through The Wood Wide Web
  9. Trees have own "Wood Wide Web" with fungi operating like fiber-optic internet cables
"Weird" hardly begins to describe the scientific skepticism ​and doubt of our conventional ideas or interpretations of communication systems, "languages" or meaningful signals occuring within or between species, ...  other than individuals or communities of animals.  
Animals, plants, mosses, fungi and bacteria are so different from each other in the manner that they get their food, reproduce & or spread themselves or their offspring, that scientists classify these groups as seperate 'Kingdoms'.
Thus it may at first appear unlikely that these distinctly different organisms are very likely to communicate chemical or other 'messages' between each other.  
However, ... as has previously proven to be the case, as new technologies and or perspectives have allowed science to measure what can be learned by what we can sense about how our natural environment interacts and is interconnected, we can are constantly learning to appreciate how other organisms see, hear, smell, taste or feel our and their local environments.


bottom of page