Nitrogen fertilization alters the functioning of arbuscular mycorrhizas at two semiarid grasslands

Lea Corkidi, Diane L. Rowland, Nancy C. Johnson, Edith B. Allen

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138 Scopus citations


The effects of nitrogen (N) fertilization on arbuscular mycorrhizas were studied at two semiarid grasslands with different soil properties and N-enrichment history (Shortgrass Steppe in Colorado, and Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico). These sites are part of the National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research Network. The experimental plots at Shortgrass Steppe were fertilized with ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) from 1971 to 1975, and have not received additional N since then. The experimental plots at Sevilleta were also fertilized with NH4NO3, but were established in 1995, 2 years before the soils were used for this study. Greenhouse experiments were conducted to compare the growth response of local grasses to arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi from fertilized (FERT) and unfertilized (UNFERT) field soils, at each site. Two species per site were chosen, Bouteloua gracilis and Elymus elymoides from Shortgrass Steppe, and B. gracilis and B. eriopoda from Sevilleta. Plants were grown for 3 months at HIGH N and LOW N levels, with FERT or UNFERT soil inoculum and in a non-mycorrhizal condition. Fertilization with N altered the functioning of AM fungi at both sites. Grasses inoculated with AM fungi from UNFERT soils had the most tillers, greatest biomass and highest relative growth rates. There were no significant differences in the growth response of plants inoculated with AM fungi from FERT soils and the non-mycorrhizal controls. These results were consistent across sites and species except for the plants grown at LOW N in Sevilleta soils. These plants were deficient in N and phosphorus (P) and did not show growth enhancement in response to AM inoculation with either FERT or UNFERT soils. Percent root length colonized by AM fungi was not directly related to plant performance. However, enrichment with N consistently decreased root colonization by AM fungi in the grasses grown in soils from Shortgrass Steppe with high P availability (18.4 mg kg-1), but not in the grasses grown in Sevilleta soils with low P availability (6.6 mg kg-1). Our study supports the hypotheses that (1) fertilization with N alters the balance between costs and benefits in mycorrhizal symbioses and (2) AM fungal communities from N fertilized soils are less beneficial mutualists than those from unfertilized soils.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)299-310
Number of pages12
JournalPlant and Soil
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002


  • Arbuscular mycorrhizas
  • Fertilization
  • LTER
  • Nitrogen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Soil Science
  • Plant Science


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