last update October 28,. 2000
The diversity of mycorrhizal fungi does not follow patterns of plant diversity, and the type of mycorrhizal may regulate plant species diversity. For instance, coniferous forests of northern latitudes may have more than 1000 species of ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi where only a few ectomycorrhizal plant species dominate, but there are fewer than 25 species of arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi in tropical deciduous forest in Mexico with 1000 plant species. AM and EM fungi are distributed according to biome, with AM fungi predominant in arid and semiarid biomes, and EM fungi predominant in mesic biomes. In addition, AM fungi tend to be more abundant in soils of low organic matter, perhaps explaining their predominance in moist tropical forest, and EM fungi generally occur in soils with higher surface organic matter. EM fungi are relatively selective of host plant species, while AM tend to be generalists. Similar morphotypes of AM fungi collected from different sites confer different physiological benefits to the same plant species. While the EM fungi have taxonomic diversity, the AM fungi must have physiological diversity for individual species to be so widespread, as supported by existing studies. The environmental adaptations of mycorrhizal fungi are often thought to be determined by their host plant, but we suggest that the physiology and genetics of the fungi themselves, along with their responses to the plant and the environment, regulates their diversity. We observed that one AM plant species, Artemisia tridentata, was associated with different fungal species across its range, indicating that the fungi can respond to the environment directly and must not do so indirectly via the host, again suggesting a direct response to the environment. These patterns suggest that even within a single "functional group" of microorganisms, mycorrhizal fungi, considerable diversity exists. A number of researchers have expressed the concept of functional redundancy within functional groups of microorganisms, implying that the loss of a few species would not be detectable in ecosystem functioning. However, there may be high functional diversity of AM fungi within and across habitats, and high species diversity as well for EM fungi. If one species of mycorrhizal fungus becomes extinct in a habitat, field experimental data on AM fungi suggest there may be significant shifts in how plants aquire resources and grow in that habitat.