Plants and fungi sometimes live together in peace and harmony. Arbuscular mycorrhizal associations are associations between plant roots and fungi, in which the fungal hyphae (usually branched tubular structures) grow between root cells, penetrating some cells with a network of branches or arbuscules. Oftentimes these are mutualistic associations with both the plants and the fungi benefiting from living together. Though plants with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) tend to grow better than plants without AMF, it not always clear what causes them to do so.
Ecologists have traditionally viewed arbuscular mycorrhizal associations as a straightforward nutrient-carbon exchange. Fungal hyphae, with their vast surface area, pick up nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus compounds) from the soil, which they deliver to the root cells in exchange for plant-produced carbon molecules.
But recently researchers have identified numerous other potential ways that the fungi help the plants, including the following: (1) promoting water uptake and transport, (2) helping to spread allelochemicals – toxic chemicals that some plants release to rid themselves of nearby competitors, (3) inducing chemical defenses against herbivores, (4) enhancing disease resistance, and (5) promoting soil aggregation or clumping, which stabilizes the soil near the roots, reduces erosion and promotes stable water flow.
Camille Delavaux and her colleagues wondered whether these other plant benefits might actually be more important than we originally thought. Delavaux was planning to write a review paper for a 1 credit independent study, but she found so many papers on this topic that she decided to collaborate with fellow students Lauren Smith-Ramesh and Sara Kuebbing on a full-scale meta-analysis.
A meta-analysis is a systematic analysis of data collected by many other researchers. Delavaux and her colleagues used the Web of Science database to find 4410 studies on how AMF supplied plants with nutrients and 1239 studies on how AMF provided other plant benefits. That’s a lot of studies! But for the meta-analysis, the authors only used a small fraction of these studies because they set certain restrictions. For example, to be used in the meta-analysis the authors required each study to show some measure of variation for the data (such as standard deviation or standard error). In addition, the authors required each study to compare plants grown under two conditions: with AMF and without AMF. In many studies the researchers collected soil, which they sterilized in a hot oven, and then set up a test group, which they inoculated with AMF spores or a plug of soil or root fragments that contained AMF. In addition, these studies also had a control group of plants that received only sterilized soil with no AMF added.
Delavaux and her colleagues compared how plants performed with and without an AMF. Because each study was different, one might only have been looking at the effects of AMF on nitrogen uptake performance, while a second study might consider how AMF influenced soil aggregation. Effect size (Hedges d+) compares mean performance of the AMF plant to mean performance of non-AMF plants for a particular variable (such as nitrogen uptake or soil aggregation). A positive effect size means that the AMF plant did better. Of course we need to know how much better is biologically meaningful, so for each variable the researchers calculated the 95% confidence intervals of the mean effect size. If the 95% confidence intervals were positive, then Delavaux and her colleagues could be 95% confident that there was a biologically important effect of AMF on plants for that particular measure of performance.
As expected, the researchers found a positive effect of AMF on plant nitrogen uptake. The mean effect size was 0.674 with a 95% confidence interval of 0.451- 0.912. We can interpret this to mean that we are 95% confident that the true mean effect size on nitrogen uptake is between 0.451 and 0.912. But the greatest effect of AMF on plants was on soil aggregation (mean effect size = 1.645, 95% confidence interval = 1.032 – 2.248). AMF also had significant positive effects on phosphorus uptake, water flow and disease resistance.
This meta-analysis shows that AMF help plants in many different ways. Researchers knew about the AMF impact on nitrogen and phosphorus uptake, but may be surprised to learn of equally strong effects on water flow, disease resistance and soil aggregation. Consequently, AMF may be very useful for forest management, agriculture, conservation and habitat restoration. As examples, conservation biologists and forest managers may need to consider adding AMF to soils that have suffered severe burns from fires, which may kill the existing soil fungi. Or agriculturalists intent on growing a particular crop may want to inoculate the soil with a specific group of AMF spores that enhance soil aggregation and water uptake, so their crop may thrive in a habitat that might otherwise not be suitable.
More than 3/4 of land plants form associations with AMF. Consequently, any attempts to restore habitats or to maintain high levels of species diversity in existing ecosystems require understanding what types of AMF inhabit the soils, and how these AMF influence ecosystem functioning.