Mycorrhizae play a critical role in plant nutrition and health through their symbiotic relationship with plant roots. This mutually beneficial association enhances the uptake of water and various nutrients for the plant, while providing the fungus with carbohydrates from the plant. Understanding the dynamics of this relationship is key to promoting optimal plant growth, crop yields, and ecosystem functioning.

What are Mycorrhizae?

Mycorrhizae refers to the symbiotic association between soil fungi and plant roots. The word mycorrhiza literally translates to “fungus root” in Greek. This relationship is ancient, existing since the first plants colonized land over 400 million years ago. Over 80% of plant families form mycorrhizal partnerships. The mycorrhizal fungi form branching structures called hyphae, which act as root extensions penetrating the soil. Hyphae have a large surface area in contact with the soil relative to plant roots. There are different types of mycorrhizal associations, but most fall under arbuscular mycorrhizae (AM) and ectomycorrhizae (ECM).

Arbuscular Mycorrhizae

Arbuscular mycorrhizae (AM) are the most widespread type, forming associations with over 80% of plant species. They are characterized by the formation of unique structures, arbuscules and vesicles, within root cortical cells. Arbuscules are branching treelike fungal structures which facilitate nutrient exchange. Vesicles are swollen hyphal tips that store nutrients. AM fungi belong to the phylum Glomeromycota. They associate with plants in ecosystems worldwide, from arid deserts to tropical rainforests. AM partnerships enhance the uptake of phosphorus, nitrogen, water, and various micronutrients. In return, the AM fungi receive approximately 20% of the carbon fixed by the plant.


Ectomycorrhizae (ECM) form between fungi and forest trees like pine, birch, and oak. These fungi form a sheath or mantle covering the root tips and grow into the root cortex. A characteristic feature is the formation of the Hartig net – hyphae that penetrate between root cells. ECM associations are localized at root tips and do not form structures within cells. ECM fungi provide trees with nitrogen, phosphorus, water, and minerals. They belong to the phyla Basidiomycota and Ascomycota. ECM fungi may also connect trees together underground through mycelial networks to facilitate nutrient transfers.

How Mycorrhizae Enhance Nutrient Uptake

Mycorrhizal hyphae act as extensions of root systems with increased absorptive capacity. Fungal hyphae are narrower than roots and can penetrate smaller soil pores accessing water and nutrients unavailable to roots alone. The total length of mycorrhizal hyphae can be tens of meters long per centimeter of root length. This greatly amplifies the surface area for absorption of immobile nutrients like phosphorus, zinc, and copper. Nutrients are transferred to host plants through the mycorrhizal interface.

Fungal partners also release powerful enzymes and organic acids that solubilize and mineralize nutrients from organic matter. Mycorrhizal hyphae contain zoospores that mobilize phosphorus for transport through the hyphal network to the host plant. Fungal hyphae contribute significantly to soil aggregation and improve soil structure enhancing nutrient and water availability.

Mycorrhizal fungi increase root surface area for absorption of water and nutrients. This is especially beneficial when soil moisture is limited. The extraradical mycelium formed by mycorrhizal fungi acts as an extension of the root system providing the plant with greater access to soil moisture from a larger volume of soil.

Plants colonized by mycorrhizal fungi are also better able to withstand environmental stresses. Mycorrhizal plants often have higher photosynthetic rates and biomass accumulation. Enhanced phosphorus nutrition is particularly important in alleviating drought stress. Overall, mycorrhizal associations confer nutritional benefits that are critical for plant survival and fitness.

Mechanisms of Nutrient Exchange

The interfaces where fungal hyphae interact with plant root cells are critical sites of nutrient exchange.

In arbuscular mycorrhizae, the arbuscules embedded within root cortex cells are the main site of nutrient transfer. Carbon, in the form of glucose, flows from the plant to the fungus. Mineral nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen are transferred in the opposite direction from the extensive hyphal network to the plant. This bi-directional exchange is facilitated by specific plant and fungal membrane proteins. Signaling between the symbiotic partners coordinates the construction and degradation of arbuscules.

In ectomycorrhizae, the Hartig net mediates nutrient exchange between fungal hyphae and root cells. Nutrients are transferred across this interface, while carbon flows to the fungus. Recent work indicates that plant-derived fatty acids also fuel ectomycorrhizal fungi. The Hartig net forms a large surface area to support this bi-directional trading of nutrients.

Beyond the physical interfaces, molecular signals and genes support mycorrhizal symbiosis. Plants release strigolactones that stimulate presymbiotic fungal growth and metabolism. In response, fungi release lipo-chitooligosaccharide signals called mycorrhizal factors that induce symbiotic changes in plant root cells. An important change is increased membrane surface area for efficient nutrient exchange. Coordinated gene expression in both partners maintains the symbiotic relationship.

Mycorrhizal Contributions to Plant Health

Mycorrhizal associations provide plants with nutritional advantages vital for growth and reproduction. Enhanced phosphorus acquisition is critical, as phosphate availability limits growth in many ecosystems. Mycorrhizal plants often have higher nitrogen content and photosynthetic rates relative to non-mycorrhizal plants. Increased water uptake facilitates plant survival during droughts. Mycorrhizae also provide plants with greater access to essential micronutrients like copper, manganese, and zinc. By improving nutrition, mycorrhizae increase plant biomass, size, and reproductive output.

Mycorrhizal fungi protect plants against various pathogens. They induce systemic resistance in plants and release antibiotics that suppress pathogens. Mycorrhizal plants have heightened immune responses relative to non-mycorrhizal plants. Fungal partners reduce damage from parasitic nematodes and binding of pathogens to root cells. Mycorrhizae also buffer plants from toxic metal contaminants in soils.

In natural ecosystems, mycorrhizae enhance plant species diversity. Shared mycorrhizal networks can facilitate seedling establishment and transfer resources between plants. This promotes plant coexistence and richness. By benefiting plant nutrition and health, mycorrhizal fungi play an integral role in shaping plant communities.

Optimization of Mycorrhizae for Agriculture

Harnessing mycorrhizae may enhance agricultural productivity and sustainability. Mycorrhizal inoculation early in plant development consistently increases crop yields, particularly in low input farming. Mycorrhizal application is a promising environmentally friendly alternative to fertilizers and pesticides. Targeted optimization of indigenous mycorrhizal communities could reduce the need for costly inputs. However, response to mycorrhizal inoculation varies with crop species, fungal strains, and soil conditions. More research is needed to elucidate the complex tripartite interactions between plants, fungi, and the soil environment. Ultimately, managing mycorrhizal symbioses in combination with diverse crop rotations, reduced tillage, and balanced fertility practices could promote plant health while enhancing agricultural sustainability.


Mycorrhizal symbioses are integral to optimal plant function and health. The intimate partnership between plants and mycorrhizal fungi enhances nutrient and water acquisition through an enormous network of hyphae functioning as root extensions. Mycorrhizae increase plant growth, reproduction, and resistance to stresses. They play essential roles in natural ecosystems as well as in agriculture. Further research into mycorrhizal dynamics will open new avenues for promoting sustainable plant productivity and nutrition into the future. Clearly, these fascinating soil fungi are fundamental players in plant nutrition that provide multifaceted benefits to their plant partners.