Arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi are root symbionts that enhance plant growth and improve soil fertility and soil structure in drylands. Even though AM fungi are obligate biotrophs, organic matter (OM) can stimulate their growth, but the mechanisms behind this are still unknown. Here, we compared the effect of nutrient patches of different OM sources to intrinsic components of OM such as inorganic nutrient supply and an improved soil water-holding capacity (WHC; via application of hydrophilic polymers), on AM fungal growth. Fatty acids extracted from in-growth mesh bags incubated in the field were used as biomarkers for AM fungi and other soil microbes. We found an enhancement of AM fungal growth in certain nutrient patches. Two out of three OM types stimulated AM fungal growth strongly, and also the addition of inorganic nutrients enhanced AM fungi, though to a lesser extent than OM. Enhanced soil WHC, on the other hand, did not influence AM fungal growth. AMF were more strongly enhanced by the mineral nutrients relative to other soil organisms. Intrinsic nutrients might be an important factor for AMF growth stimulation in OM additions, but there was no evidence that nutrients alone can explain this phenomenon. (C) 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.