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Ecology. 2009 Aug;90(8):2098-107.

Root tip competition among ectomycorrhizal fungi: are priority effects a rule or an exception?

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  • 1Department of Biology, Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon 97219, USA.


Competition for root colonization among ectomycorrhizal fungi is well documented, but the mechanisms determining competitive outcomes are not clearly understood. In a previous study, we observed that timing of colonization (i.e., a priority effect) had a significant effect on the outcome of competition between two ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi in the genus Rhizopogon. In this study, we explicitly tested the role of priority effects in competition among EM fungi by experimentally manipulating the timing of colonization of four Rhizopogon species on Pinus muricata seedlings. In a first experiment, we set up 12 two-species combinations, in which seedlings were first inoculated from spores with one species, grown for three months, and then inoculated with an equal density of spores of a second species and grown for an additional three months. Root tip occupation in the two-species treatments was determined by polymerase chain reaction restriction fragment length polymorphism (PCR-RFLP) analysis of internal transcribed spacer region (ITS) of rDNA. In a second experiment, we further examined competitive interactions between two Rhizopogon species using split-root P. muricata seedlings. One side of the root system was pre-colonized by one species, and spores of the second species were added to the other side of the root system in all same and different species pair-wise combinations. We found that for three of the four species (R. occidentalis, R. salebrosus, R. vulgaris), the outcome of competition in the first experiment depended strongly on the timing of colonization, with the first colonizing species always being the competitive dominant. For R. evadens, however, initial colonization did not prevent significant subsequent colonization by R. occidentalis and R. vulgaris. This appeared to be caused by the lower colonization of R. evadens compared to the three other species. In the second experiment, we observed that the portion of the split root system that was initially uncolonized remained receptive to colonization when spores were added. The amount of colonization of R. occidentalis and R. salebrosus on the side of the root system to which they were added was not significantly influenced by species identity on the other side of the seedling. In combination, these results confirm that priority effects do play a major role in dynamics of EM root tip colonization, at least in the early colonization of seedlings, and that the proportion of the root system occupied by a species appears to be a key factor determining competitive success.

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