In arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) symbiosis, fungi and plants exchange nutrients (sugars and phosphate, for instance) for reciprocal benefit. Until now it is not clear how this nutrient exchange system works. Here, we used computational cell biology to simulate the dynamics of a network of proton pumps and proton-coupled transporters that are upregulated during AM formation. We show that this minimal network is sufficient to describe accurately and realistically the nutrient trade system. By applying basic principles of microeconomics, we link the biophysics of transmembrane nutrient transport with the ecology of organismic interactions and straightforwardly explain macroscopic scenarios of the relations between plant and AM fungus. This computational cell biology study allows drawing far reaching hypotheses about the mechanism and the regulation of nutrient exchange and proposes that the "cooperation" between plant and fungus can be in fact the result of a competition between both for the same resources in the tiny periarbuscular space. The minimal model presented here may serve as benchmark to evaluate in future the performance of more complex models of AM nutrient exchange. As a first step toward this goal, we included SWEET sugar transporters in the model and show that their co-occurrence with proton-coupled sugar transporters results in a futile carbon cycle at the plant plasma membrane proposing that two different pathways for the same substrate should not be active at the same time.
Keywords: computational cell biology; phosphate; plant biophysics; proton-coupled transport; sugar.