January 13, 2019

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Decomposers in disguise or extensions of root systems?

Exploring the role of ectomycorrhizal fungi in soil carbon dynamics .

The Science

This two-day workshop at the University of Michigan consisted of presentations and discussions about the role of ectomycorrhizal fungi in ecosystems. The workshop focused on resolving the processes that underlie the seemingly disparate empirical evidence that currently exists regarding the ability of ectomycorrhizae to provide plants with nitrogen from soil and in doing so, to modify soil organic matter. In this paper, the results of the workshop discussions are summarized, and future steps to resolve the lack of information is outlined. Key take away points involve drawing distinctions between fungal-mediated saprotrophy and fungal-mediated soil organic matter modification (enzymatic and non-enzymatic), and considering the role of fungal lineage and interspecific interactions in assessments of how ectomycorrhizae affect ecosystem processes.

The Impact

Since David Read’s seminal 1991 paper “Mycorrhizas in ecosystems”, few papers have concisely synthesized our understanding of how and why ectomycorrhizal fungi differ in their effects on soil organic matter dynamics, and why this matters for understanding ecosystem responses to global change. This paper should lead to an improved understanding of these dynamics, a novel framework for contextualizing future results, and a blueprint for improving representations of plant-soil dynamics in models.


While much has been learned about the role of ectomycorrhizae in ecosystems from site-level studies of a few taxa, it’s important to understand how and why ectomycorrhizal fungi differ in their effects on ecosystems. This review article synthesizes what is known and proposes new avenues of research that hold promise for resolving contrasting empirical observations in the field.

Principal Investigator

Joshua Fisher
University of California, Los Angeles/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
[email protected]

Program Manager

Daniel Stover
U.S. Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research (SC-33)
Environmental System Science
[email protected]


U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program, and National Science Foundation Ecosystem Science.


Zak, D. R., P. T. Pellitier, W. Argiroff, et al. "Exploring the role of ectomycorrhizal fungi in soil carbon dynamics." 223 (1), 33–39  (2019). https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.15679.