Sympatric pairings of dryland grass populations, mycorrhizal fungi and associated soil biota enhance mutualism and ameliorate drought stress

Michael J. Remke, Nancy C. Johnson, Jeffrey Wright, Matthew Williamson, Matthew A. Bowker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


There is evidence that the distribution of ecotypes of plants and their symbiotic arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi and other associated soil biota may be structured by the availability of essential soil nutrients; and that locally adapted partnerships most successfully acquire limiting nutrients. This study tests the hypotheses that plant genotypes are adapted to the water availability of their local environment, and this adaptation involves associations with local soil biota, including AM fungi. We grew semi-arid Bouteloua gracilis ecotypes from relatively wet and dry sites, with either sympatric or allopatric soil inoculum under moderate and extreme soil drying treatments to examine (a) how varying degrees of water limitation influence grass responses to soil biota and (b) the relationship between AM fungal structures and the responses. Under extreme soil drying, the dry site ecotype tended to perform better than the wet site ecotype. Both ecotypes performed best in either drying treatment when inoculated with their sympatric soil biota. Sympatric pairings produced more AM fungal hyphae, arbuscules and dark septate fungi. Extreme soil drying tended to accentuate these apparent benefits of sympatry to both plants and fungal symbionts, relative to the moderate drying treatment. Our findings support the hypothesis that AM symbioses help Bouteloua gracilis ecotypes adapt to local water availability. This conclusion is based on the observations that as water became increasingly limited, sympatric partnerships produced more AM fungal hyphae and arbuscules and fewer vesicles. The abundances of hyphae and arbuscules were positively correlated with plant growth, suggesting that in sympatric pairs of plants and AM fungi, allocation to fungal structures is optimized to maximize benefits and minimize the costs of the symbioses. This provides strong evidence that co-adaptation among plants and their associated AM fungi can ameliorate drought stress. Synthesis. Our study documents the role of locally adapted soil borne plant symbionts in ameliorating water stress. We found a relationship between AM fungal structures in roots and plant performance. Generally, plants and fungi from the same site resulted in more positive effects on plant growth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1210-1223
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • Bouteloua gracilis
  • arbuscular mycorrhizas
  • climate change
  • co-adaptation
  • drought
  • local adaptation
  • soil organisms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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