4.3 - Mycorrhizal associations

Megan H Ryan1 and Mark C Brundrett1,2
1School of Plant Biology, University of Western Australia; 2Department of Parks and Wildlife, Western Australia.

The roots of around 90% of higher plants form a symbiotic association with mycorrhizal fungi (Figure 4.21). These fungi colonise roots, with the colonised root being termed a “mycorrhiza”. The fungi benefit from the provision of plant carbon. The host plant may benefit in many ways, but the primary benefit is most often the ability to access inorganic nutrients from soil beyond the rhizosphere due to their transport into the root by hyphae of the fungi. Mycorrhizal associations are present in plants in both natural ecosystems and modern agricultural systems; although their occurrence in the latter may be reduced by common management practices, especially the addition of fertiliser.


Figure 4.21 Relative importance of mycorrhizal associations for all flowering plants. About 94% of plants can form mycorrhizas of various types. Arbuscular mycorrhizas (AM) are the most common type. Shown in light green are the 8% of species with inconsistent associations that vary with habitat or soil conditions and can be nonmycorrhizal or AM. (Based on Brundrett 2009)

Mycorrhizal fungi are thought to have aided the first plants to colonise land, but most or all species in some plant genera have subsequently lost the ability to form mycorrhizas (e.g. Lupinus, Brassica and Banksia). Nonmycorrhizal plants may have roots that are consistently free of mycorrhizal fungi or have inconsistent associations. The former tend to have alternative nutrition strategies, the latter occur in soils where fungal activity is inhibited, at least part of the time. On a global scale, nonmycorrhizal plants tend to be more common in colder arctic and alpine habitats, and wetland and aquatic habitats, as well as in saline soils and arid habitats (Figure 4.22). These habitats also include many plants with facultative mycorrhizal associations that are present in some cases and not others (called “nonmycorrhizal or AM” in Figure 4.21). In other cases, plants loose the capacity to form mycorrhizas because they are redundant. These include parasites and carnivores, which do not need to acquire nutrients directly from soil (Figure 4.22).


Figure 4.22 Categories and numbers of nonmycorrhizal plants. Most nonmycorrhizal plants occur in specialized habitats where fungal activity is likely to be restricted or have specialized nutritional uptake mechanisms such as carnivory, parasitism or cluster roots. (Data from M. Brundrett, Plant Soil 320: 37-77, 2009)

4.3.1 - Main types of mycorrhizas

Mycorrhizal associations are classified according to the way in which the fungi interact with the host plant root, in particular, the structure of the interface that forms between host cells and fungal hyphae. This classification leads to a number of distinct types of mycorrhizal association, as defined in Table 4.1. However, only two of these are widely distributed in the plant kingdom: arbuscular mycorrhizas (AM) and ectomycorrhizas. Orchid and ericoid mycorrhizas are confined to genera within the Orchidaceae and Ericaceae families, respectively.

Mycorrhizal types generally form with a characteristic group of plant species, but there are occasional examples of overlap, such as many Australian plants in the families Fabaceae and Myrtaceae, which have both arbuscular mycorrhizas and ectomycorrhizas. Arbuscular mycorrhizas occur in a vast array of herbaceous genera. In fact, as shown in Figure 4.21 above, some 75% of all plant species form arbuscular mycorrhizas, including most major crop species, that is, all cereals and most grain legumes and pasture legumes.

Table 4.1 shows that the main types of mycorrhizas differ in host preference and in the structures they form during association with the host root, but they are similar in the ways by which they enhance host plant nutrition. Each type of mycorrhiza can be formed by many species of fungi and a single root may often be colonised by more than one species.

Plants with arbuscular mycorrhizas are common in most ecosystems, but are more likely to be dominant in regions of relatively high mean annual temperatures and rates of evapotranspiration, where phosphorus availability is often the major limiting factor for plant growth. However, in some soils with very low phosphorus availability, nonmycorrhizal plant species with cluster roots may be locally dominant and these plants seem to be more efficient at obtaining phosphorus from these soils than mycorrhizal species (e.g. south west Western Australia).

Ectomycorrhizas are most common in tree species, but also occur in some shrubs. In the Northern hemisphere, ectomycorrhizal associations are typically dominant in boreal forests where temperatures and evapotranspiration are relatively low, leading to slow rates of decomposition and accumulation of plant litter in soil and low nitrogen availability. However, ectomycorrhizal plants are also dominant or co-dominant in many other temperate forests, as well as some tropical and subtropical areas, where soil properties are not substantially different from habitats where only arbuscular mycorrhizal plants occur.

Each type of mycorrhizal association has evolved separately to enhance growth and survival of both the host plants and the mycorrhizal fungi. While the primary role of these associations is to increase nutrient supply to the host plant, mycorrhizas have also been shown under some circumstances to enhance plant water status, confer protection against root pathogens, contribute to soil structure through hyphal binding of soil particles and other processes, and render plants less susceptible to toxic elements. The relative importance of these secondary roles is very difficult to determine since they are difficult to separate from nutritional benefits to plants in experiments and they will not be considered in detail here.

4.3.2 - Development and structure of mycorrhizas


Figure 4.23 Schematic diagram of an arbuscular mycorrhiza. (Courtesy M. Brundrett)

Arbuscular mycorrhizal associations are formed by fungi from division Glomeromycota, class Glomeromycetes. DNA sequence evidence shows they are closely related to the Zygomycota. These fungi simultaneously exist in both the soil and roots, with different forms of hyphae in each environment, as shown in the diagram below (Figure 4.23).

During the infection process, fungal hyphae penetrate the epidermal cell layer, often forming distinctive large hyphae within the root at the point of entry (Figure 4.24). From the entry point, hyphae then spread through the root cortex by growing either through the intercellular spaces or from cell to cell by penetrating the cell walls. Hyphae do not, however, penetrate the endodermis or enter the stele.


Figure 4.24 Left, Root of clover (Trifolium subterraneum) colonised by an arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus. The fungus has formed thick entry hyphae in the epidermis before spreading through the cortex cells, forming an arbuscule (A) in many cortex cells and some vesicles (V). Roots were cleared (to make them transparent) and then stained with Trypan blue. Right, Root of leek (Allium porrum) colonised by indigenous mycorrhizal fungi showing hyphae, arbuscules and many large vesicles. (Photographs courtesy M. Brundrett)

Within individual cortex cells, hyphae may form a distinctive structure called an arbuscule. From the base of each arbuscule, hyphae repeatedly branch, becoming thinner and thinner as they do so (Figure 4.25). The host cell plasma membrane is never penetrated by the fungus.


Figure 4.25 Longitudinal view of a mature arbuscule of an arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus which has formed in a root cortical cell of leek (Allium porrum). Roots were cleared, stained with Chlorazol black E and viewed with interference contrast microscopy. (Photograph courtesy M. Brundrett)

Thus in a cell with an arbuscule, the host cell plasma membrane remains intact and functional, but proliferates to surround the arbuscular branches (Figure 4.26). The highly-branched nature of arbuscules is thought to increase the surface area to volume ratio of the host plant plasma membrane by up to 20-fold, relative to unoccupied root cells, thus providing an extensive interface across which nutrient exchange can take place (Figure 4.26).


Figure 4.26 A transverse view of cortex cells in frozen roots of white clover (Trifolium repens) colonised by indigenous arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. In uncolonised cells (UC), the plasma membrane is so closely aligned to the cell wall that it cannot be distinguished and what can be seen inside the cell are dots and lines formed by solutes frozen in the cell vacuole. However, some cells contain the many small hyphae of mature arbuscules (Arb) which have the plasma membrane encasing them and large hyphae are evident occupying most of the intercellular spaces surrounding these cells (arrows). Roots were frozen in liquid nitrogen and viewed using cryo-scanning electron microscopy. (Photograph courtesy M. McCully)

When we consider that all fungal biomass was built using plant carbon, it becomes evident that considerable carbon is needed to maintain the symbiosis.

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi store the carbon they obtain from the host plant root primarily in the form of lipids. Lipids are particularly dense in vesicles and spores, which also act as inoculum. Vesicles and spores may form within or outside of roots and often develop most prolifically when roots begin to senesce. The morphology of the fungal infection, particularly the vesicles and spores, differs with the species of fungi.

Ectomycorrhizal symbioses are formed primarily by higher fungi in the Basidiomycotina and Ascomycotina, which form mycorrhizas with the short lateral roots of trees (Table 4.1). Unlike arbuscular mycorrhizas and ericoid mycorrhizas, hyphae of ectomycorrhizal fungi do not normally penetrate host cell walls. Rather, they form an entirely extracellular interface, with highly branched hyphae growing between epidermal or cortical cells, forming a network known as the Hartig net (Figure 4.27).


Figure 4.27 Schematic diagram of an ectomycorrhiza showing structures visible in the soil at three levels of magnification (Diagram courtesy M. Brundrett)

In Gymnosperms such as Pinus, the Hartig net may extend through most of the root cortex, but in most Angiosperms it is confided to the epidermis (Figure 4.28). In both cases, the highly branched hyphae of the Hartig net provide a substantial surface area for nutrient exchange between the fungus and the plant. Ectomycorrhizas are further differentiated from the other mycorrhizal types by the fact that the fungus usually forms a dense hyphal mantle around each short lateral root, greatly reducing its contact with the soil (e.g. Figure 4.28).


Figure 4.28 Transverse section of ectomycorrhizas showing labyrinthine Hartig net hyphae (arrows) in roots of Pinus sp. (left) and Populus sp. (right). Fungal hyphae are structurally modified, making intimate contact with root cortex (C) (left) or epidermal cells (E) (right) and enabling exchange of resources through the interface between fungus and host. A mantle of fungal hyphae (M) surrounds both roots. (Photographs courtesy M. Brundrett)

Orchid mycorrhizal associations consist of coiling hyphae within cells of a root or stem (Figure 4.29). The most common fungi involved are members of the Rhizoctonia alliance, but ectomycorrhizal fungi are also found in some orchids, especially in achlorophyllous species lacking photosynthesis. A key feature of orchid mycorrhizas is the capacity of fungi to germinate the tiny seeds of orchids to form tiny protocorms which lack roots or leaves. It is thought that orchids start out by exploiting fungi, but then may develop more mutualistic associations as they grow larger and develop leaves.


Figure 4.29 Orchid mycorrhizal association in the underground stem of an Australian greenhood orchid (Pterostylis sanguinea). This cross section is stained by Trypan blue and shows individual cells filled with densely packed hyphal coils (arrow). (Photograph courtesy M. Brundrett)

Ericoid mycorrhizal fungi (largely ascomycetes) form an interface within cells, consisting of dense hyphal coils which are surrounded by host plasma membrane which is similar to orchid mycorrhizas (Figure 4.30). Many members of the Ericaceae host these associations in very fine lateral roots called hair roots, which are only a few cells wide (Figure 4.30).


Figure 4.30 Several hair roots of Leucopogon verticillata, an Australian member of the Ericaceae, with nearly every cell containing intracellular hyphal coils of an ericoid mycorrhizal fungi (arrows). Many soil hyphae can also be seen leaving the hair roots. Hair roots stained with Chlorazol black E and viewed with interference contrast. (Photograph courtesy M. Brundrett)

4.3.3 - Functional aspects of mycorrhizas

The association between fungus and plant delivers nutrients to the host plant via: (a) mobilisation and absorption by fungal mycelia in the soil; (b) translocation to the fungus–root interface within the root and (c) transfer across the fungus–root interface into the cytoplasm of root cells. As shown in Figure 4.31, both roots and mycorrhizas can absorb nutrients such as phosphorus from the soil, so plants with highly branched fine roots and long root hairs are less likely to benefit substantially from mycorrhizal associations.


Figure 4.31 Diagrammatic summary showing the impact of roots hairs or arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal hyphae on phosphorus uptake from the soil. Compare the upper and lower pairs of drawings to see how soil hyphae increase the size of phosphorus depletion zones in soil much more if plants lack highly branched roots with long root hairs. (Based on Brundrett et al. 1996)


Figure 4.32 Root hairs of an Australian sundew (Drosera erythrorhiza), a carnivorous plant with nonmycorrhizal roots that have extremely long root hairs (1 mm) in relation to the diameter of the root. (Photograph courtesy M. Brundrett)

The majority of plants in natural ecosystems have relatively thick and unbranched roots without long root hairs so are likely to be highly dependent on mycorrhizal associations in the soils where they normally grow. Some crop and garden plants, such as many grasses and members of the Brassicaceae have long root hairs so tend to benefit less from mycorrhizas or have nonmycorrhizal roots (e.g. Figure 4.32).

(a) Nutrient uptake from the soil by the fungi

In addition to hyphae in direct contact with the root surface, all mycorrhizal fungi produce soil hyphae (extramatrical mycelium) which extend into the surrounding soil. Both arbuscular mycorrhizal and ectomycorrhizal fungi can produce copious soil hyphae, that extends well beyond the nutrient depletion zone for immobile nutrients around individual roots and display a complex architecture that renders them an efficient nutrient-collecting and transport network (Figure 4.33). The soil hyphae of many ectomycorrhizal fungi form hyphal aggregations, known as mycelial strands and rhizomorphs, that play a major role in transport of inorganic nutrients or photoassimilates.


Figure 4.33 Abundant mycelium (M) of Scleroderma forms a sheath (S) around roots of an eucalypt and explores surrounding soil (E). These ectomycorrhizas benefit the host through enhanced nutrient uptake (especially phosphorus) from surrounding soil. (Photograph courtesy I. Tommerup)

Extramatrical mycelium is also primarily responsible for spread of the association to new roots and translocation of energy from the plants for fungal reproduction. Fungi forming mycorrhizal associations can also spread by germination of wind or animal dispersed spores and, in some cases, from old root pieces.

In arbuscular mycorrhizas, fine highly branched soil hyphae (diameter 1–5 µm) provide surface area for nutrient absorption, while larger diameter hyphae (up to 10 µm) form a transport network in the soil for moving solutes from bulk soil to the root (Figure 4.34). Absorption of phosphate by the fungus is maximised by the action of a high-affinity transporter which is expressed only in the soil hyphae of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi during symbiosis with the plant. The fungi take up inorganic phosphate and quickly convert it to polyphosphate, a macromolecule where the charge of the phosphate ions is balanced by cations including those of potassium and magnesium. Polyphosphate allows phosphorus to be transported to the plant without affecting hyphal osmotic balance. For instance, within the root, concentrations of phosphorus in hyphae may be up to 350 mM, but plant cell vacuoles generally have < 10 mM. Once the polyphosphate reaches an arbuscule in the plant root it is converted back to phosphate and released into the peri-arbuscular space where it is absorbed by the host plant. Active transporters in the host cell plasma membrane maintain a concentration gradient across the plant-fungus interface.


Figure 4.34 Soil hyphae of an arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus growing through the surrounding rhizosphere soil and forming spores. Such hyphae ramify through the soil and likely influence soil chemistry and microbial functioning. Root stained with Chlorazol black E. (Photograph courtesy M. Brundrett)

Many experiments have demonstrated a relationship between arbuscular mycorrhizal infection and improved plant phosphorus status, particularly under glasshouse and laboratory conditions (Figure 4.35). Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi do not appear to have access to sources of soil phosphorus that are otherwise unavailable to nonmycorrhizal roots. Thus, increased plant absorption in the presence of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi of phosphorus, nitrogen and other macronutrients such as calcium and sulphur, and micronutrients including zinc and copper, seems to primarily reflect the increased absorptive surface of the soil hyphae. However, soil hyphae also provide a conduit for rapid transport of carbon from plants into soil and there is evidence that hyphal exudation may promote breakdown of organic nutrient sources by other microorganisms (see below). Note that the effects of individual species or strains of fungi on plant nutrition will vary, in part due to different morphology of soil hyphae. Under some circumstances, the presence of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi may decrease plant growth especially in heavily fertilised crop plants.


Figure 4.35 The typical growth response for an Australian Cassia species to inoculation with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. The greater shoot dry weight of the inoculated plants is due to the fungi enhancing plant uptake of phosphorus. There is no benefit for the plant from the fungi at the lowest level of phosphorus as the fungi are also likely limited by phosphorus, but benefit is substantial at low-intermediate phosphorus levels. (Based on Brundrett et al. 1996, data courtesy of David Jasper and Karen Clarke)

The soil hyphae of ectomycorrhizal fungi increase the absorptive area of a root system substantially, extending the volume of soil explored by the host plant and consequently the quantity of minerals available. Ectomycorrhizal fungi, however, use additional strategies to enhance nutrient acquisition. Some secrete extracellular proteinases, peptidases, phosphomonoesterases and phosphodiesterases that effectively hydrolyse organic nitrogen and phosphorus sources to liberate some nitrogen and phosphorus compounds which can be absorbed by the fungi. Some ectomycorrhizal fungi produce hydrolytic enzymes within the cellulase, hemicellulase and lignase families that may facilitate hyphal entry to moribund plant material in soil and access to mineral nutrients sequestered therein. In these ways, ectomycorrhizal fungi short-circuit conventional nutrient cycles, releasing nutrients from soil organic matter with little or no involvement of saprotrophic organisms. Ectomycorrhizal fungi also release siderophores capable of complexing iron and oxalate to improve potassium uptake and have also been implicated in promoting weathering of rocks to release mineral nutrients for plants.

(b) Carbon uptake from the plant by the fungi

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi depend completely on the host plant for carbon and are unable to grow without being associated with a host plant. This has made the culture of these fungi difficult and proved a significant barrier to development of cheap technologies for inoculation (as might be desirable in land rehabilitation or agriculture) on a large scale. Transfer of carbon from the host to an arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus likely takes place in the arbuscule where the plant releases simple sugars (hexoses) which are absorbed by the fungi. These sugars are rapidly converted into trehalose, glycogen and lipids. The lipids and, to a lesser extent, glycogen are transported to the soil hyphae. Once in the soil hyphae, lipids are progressively broken down into hexoses and trehalose and used to fuel the growth of the fungus. As the lifecycle of the fungus progresses, large amounts of lipid are stored, particularly in vesicles and spores which may be inside or outside of the roots.

In contrast to arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, ectomycorrhizal fungi can utilise carbon substrates other than those provided by the host plant. It seems that most ectomycorrhizal fungi have some ability to use lignin and cellulose, along with various other substrates including starch, glycogen and sugars such as glucose. Ability to utilise various substrates differs among fungal species. As a result of these abilities, ectomycorrhizal fungi are able to be isolated and grown in culture. For ectomycorrhizal fungi associated with host roots, sucrose is thought to be hydrolysed in root cell walls and glucose to be then absorbed by hyphae from the interface apoplasm.

It has been estimated that 20-50% of plant photosynthate is allocated to mycorrhizal fungi, much of which is allocated to soil hyphae. The soil hyphae of the fungi exude carbon compounds which will influence soil processes including the growth, composition and function of the soil microbial community. Recent research suggests that roots and mycorrhizas may differentially affect soil carbon pools. Thus, overall, the fungi provide a significant pipeline for the movement of carbon from the plant shoot into the soil and may greatly influence soil processes and microbial activity both within and away from the rhizosphere. Indeed, it is now thought that the fungi may significantly influence the global carbon cycle (e.g. their cell walls include some components that are very slow to decompose in soils). In addition, some compounds exuded by the soil hyphae of mycorrhizas, such as glomalin, play an important role in maintenance of soil structure through gluing together soil particles, especially in sandy soils. In addition, colonisation can change the amount and composition of compounds exuded by roots. For instance, the presence of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi can result in the amount of carboxylates in the rhizosphere being reduced by 50% or more (Figure 4.36). Carboxylates are low molecular weight organic anions which are thought to play a role in release of highly sorbed phosphorus into forms that plant roots or the hyphae of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi can absorb. Hence, the presence of the fungi enhances the ability of the host to access orthophosphate, but perhaps at the expense of its ability to release phosphorus from sorbed sources.


Figure 4.36 Amount of carboxylates in the rhizosphere of 12 species of Kennedia grown with and without mycorrhizal fungi. (Adapted from Ryan et al. 2012)

Overall, there are many fascinating complexities to the relationships among host plants, fungi, nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, carbon and the soil microbial community. For instance, plants make “trade-offs” among nutrient acquisition strategies, probably due to the carbon costs of each strategy. For example, colonisation by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi often results in a reduction in root / shoot ratio, and root hair production and fine root production tends to be greater in nonmycorrhizal plants. While there are substantial costs to plants in supporting mycorrhizal associations, the cost of producing roots that function well without them seems to be even greater. Overall, the best evidence that mycorrhizal roots are more efficient than nonmycorrhizal roots is provided by the data in Figures 4.21 and 4.22. This global dataset shows that mycorrhizal plants are normally dominant in ecosystems, with the exception of habitats where conditions are likely to suppress fungal activity (e.g. waterlogged, saline, or very cold soils and epiphytic habitats).