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A phosphorus threshold for mycoheterotrophic plants in tropical forests

  • Merlin Sheldrake
  • Nicholas P. Rosenstock
  • Daniel Revillini
  • Pål Axel Olsson
  • S. Joseph Wright
  • Benjamin L. Turner
Publishing year: 2017-02-08
Language: English
Publication/Series: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Volume: 284
Issue: 1848
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: Royal Society

Abstract english

The majority of terrestrial plants associate with arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, which typically facilitate the uptake of limiting mineral nutrients by plants in exchange for plant carbon. However, hundreds of non-photosynthetic plant species—mycoheterotrophs—depend entirely on AM fungi for carbon as well as mineral nutrition. Mycoheterotrophs can provide insight into the operation and regulation of AM fungal relationships, but little is known about the factors, fungal or otherwise, that affect mycoheterotroph abundance and distribution. In a lowland tropical forest in Panama, we conducted the first systematic investigation into the influence of abiotic factors on the abundance and distribution of mycoheterotrophs, to ask whether the availability of nitrogen and phosphorus altered the occurrence of mycoheterotrophs and their AM fungal partners. Across a natural fertility gradient spanning the isthmus of Panama, and also in a long-term nutrientaddition experiment, mycoheterotrophs were entirely absent when soil exchangeable phosphate concentrations exceeded 2 mg P kg21. Experimental phosphorus addition reduced the abundance of AM fungi, and also reduced the abundance of the specific AM fungal taxa required by the mycoheterotrophs, suggesting that the phosphorus sensitivity of mycoheterotrophs is underpinned by the phosphorus sensitivity of their AM fungal hosts. The soil phosphorus concentration of 2 mg P kg21 also corresponds to a marked shift in tree community composition and soil phosphatase activity across the fertility gradient, suggesting that our findings have broad ecological significance.


  • Botany
  • Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi
  • Epiparisitism
  • Mycoheterotroph
  • Phosphorus
  • Tropical forest


  • ISSN: 0962-8452
Nicholas Rosenstock

Research group

Microbial Ecology


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Plant and fungi in pot