Understanding Multilevel Selection May Facilitate Management of Arbuscular Mycorrhizae in Sustainable Agroecosystems

Nancy Collins Johnson, Kara Skye Gibson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Studies in natural ecosystems show that adaptation of arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi and other microbial plant symbionts to local environmental conditions can help ameliorate stress and optimize plant fitness. This local adaptation arises from the process of multilevel selection, which is the simultaneous selection of a hierarchy of groups. Studies of multilevel selection in natural ecosystems may inform the creation of sustainable agroecosystems through developing strategies to effectively manage crop microbiomes including AM symbioses. Field experiments show that the species composition of AM fungal communities varies across environmental gradients, and that the biomass of AM fungi and their benefits for plants generally diminish when fertilization and irrigation eliminate nutrient and water limitations. Furthermore, pathogen protection by mycorrhizas is only important in environments prone to plant damage due to pathogens. Consequently, certain agricultural practices may inadvertently select for less beneficial root symbioses because the conventional agricultural practices of fertilization, irrigation, and use of pesticides can make these symbioses superfluous for optimizing crop performance. The purpose of this paper is to examine how multilevel selection influences the flow of matter, energy, and genetic information through mycorrhizal microbiomes in natural and agricultural ecosystems, and propose testable hypotheses about how mycorrhizae may be actively managed to increase agricultural sustainability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number627345
JournalFrontiers in Plant Science
StatePublished - Jan 26 2021


  • arbuscular mycorrhizae
  • complex adaptive systems
  • emergent properties
  • high-input agriculture
  • local adaptation
  • mycorrhizal phenotype

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science


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