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Functioning of mycorrhizal associations along the mutualism–parasitism continuum

  • N. C. JOHNSON (a1), J. H. GRAHAM (a2) and F. A. SMITH (a3)
    • Published online: 01 April 1997

A great diversity of plants and fungi engage in mycorrhizal associations. In natural habitats, and in an ecologically meaningful time span, these associations have evolved to improve the fitness of both plant and fungal symbionts. In systems managed by humans, mycorrhizal associations often improve plant productivity, but this is not always the case. Mycorrhizal fungi might be considered to be parasitic on plants when net cost of the symbiosis exceeds net benefits. Parasitism can be developmentally induced, environmentally induced, or possibly genotypically induced. Morphological, phenological, and physiological characteristics of the symbionts influence the functioning of mycorrhizas at an individual scale. Biotic and abiotic factors at the rhizosphere, community, and ecosystem scales further mediate mycorrhizal functioning. Despite the complexity of mycorrhizal associations, it might be possible to construct predictive models of mycorrhizal functioning. These models will need to incorporate variables and parameters that account for differences in plant responses to, and control of, mycorrhizal fungi, and differences in fungal effects on, and responses to, the plant. Developing and testing quantitative models of mycorrhizal functioning in the real world requires creative experimental manipulations and measurements. This work will be facilitated by recent advances in molecular and biochemical techniques. A greater understanding of how mycorrhizas function in complex natural systems is a prerequisite to managing them in agriculture, forestry, and restoration.

Corresponding author
Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University, PO Box 5640, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011-5640, USA. E-mail:
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This paper is based on a discussion/workshop entitled ‘Can mycorrhizal associations be parasitic? Re-addressing our definition of mycorrhiza: structure vs. function’ at the First International Conference on Mycorrhizae in Berkeley, California, USA, 4–9 August 1996.
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