Resolving the 'nitrogen paradox' of arbuscular mycorrhizas: fertilization with organic matter brings considerable benefits for plant nutrition and growth

Plant Cell Environ. 2016 Aug;39(8):1683-90. doi: 10.1111/pce.12667. Epub 2016 Feb 10.


Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) can transfer nitrogen (N) to host plants, but the ecological relevance is debated, as total plant N and biomass do not generally increase. The extent to which the symbiosis is mutually beneficial is thought to rely on the stoichiometry of N, phosphorus (P) and carbon (C) availability. While inorganic N fertilization has been shown to elicit strong mutualism, characterized by improved plant and fungal growth and mineral nutrition, similar responses following organic N addition are lacking. Using a compartmented microcosm experiment, we determined the significance to a mycorrhizal plant of placing a (15) N-labelled, nitrogen-rich patch of organic matter in a compartment to which only AMF hyphae had access. Control microcosms denied AMF hyphal access to the patch compartment. When permitted access to the patch compartment, the fungus proliferated extensively in the patch and transferred substantial quantities of N to the plant. Moreover, our data demonstrate that allowing hyphal access to an organic matter patch enhanced total plant N and P contents, with a simultaneous and substantial increase in plant biomass. Furthermore, we demonstrate that organic matter fertilization of arbuscular mycorrhizal plants can foster a mutually beneficial symbiosis based on nitrogen transfer, a phenomenon previously thought irrelevant.

Keywords: arbuscular mycorrhiza; growth; nitrogen; nitrogen paradox; organic matter; symbiosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Chlorella
  • Fertilizers
  • Mycorrhizae / metabolism*
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / metabolism*
  • Plantago / growth & development
  • Plantago / metabolism*


  • Fertilizers
  • Nitrogen Isotopes