Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Mycorrhizal fungal diversity determines plant biodiversity, ecosystem variability and productivity


The functioning and stability of terrestrial ecosystems are determined by plant biodiversity and species composition1,2,3,4,5. However, the ecological mechanisms by which plant biodiversity and species composition are regulated and maintained are not well understood. These mechanisms need to be identified to ensure successful management for conservation and restoration of diverse natural ecosystems. Here we show, by using two independent, but complementary, ecological experiments, that below-ground diversity of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) is a major factor contributing to the maintenance of plant biodiversity and to ecosystem functioning. At low AMF diversity, the plant species composition and overall structure of microcosms that simulate European calcareous grassland fluctuate greatly when the AMF taxa that are present are changed. Plant biodiversity, nutrient capture and productivity in macrocosms that simulate North American old-fields increase significantly with increasing AMF-species richness. These results emphasize the need to protect AMF and to consider these fungi in future management practices in order to maintain diverse ecosystems. Our results also show that microbial interactions can drive ecosystem functions such as plant biodiversity, productivity and variability.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Above-ground biomass of individual plant species and total above-ground plant biomass (mean ± s.e.m.) in microcosms simulating calcareous grasslands, in which the composition of the AMF community was manipulated (experiment 1).
Figure 2: The effect of AMF-species richness on different parameters.


  1. Schulze, E. D. & Mooney, H. A. (eds) Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function(Springer, Berlin, (1993)).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  2. Tilman, D. & Downing, J. A. Biodiversity and stability in grasslands. Nature 367, 363–365 (1994).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. Naeem, S., Thompson, L. J., Lawler, S. P., Lawton, J. H. & Woodfin, R. M. Declining biodiversity can alter the performance of ecosystems. Nature 368, 734–737 (1994).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Tilman, D., Wedin, D. & Knops, J. Productivity and sustainability influenced by biodiversity in grassland ecosystems. Nature 379, 718–720 (1996).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Hooper, D. U. & Vitousek, P. M. The effects of plant composition and diversity on ecosystem processes. Science 277, 1302–1305 (1997).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Aarssen, W. L. Ecological combining ability and competitive combining ability in plants: towards a general evolutionary theory of coexistence in systems of competition. Am. Nat. 122, 707–731 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Grace, J. D. & Tilman, D. (eds) Perspectives on Plant Competition(Academic, San Diego, (1990)).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Ricklefs, R. W. Environmental heterogeneity and plant species diversity: a hypothesis. Am. Nat. 111, 376–381 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Tilman, D. Resource Competition and Community Structure(Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, (1982)).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Grubb, P. The maintenance of species richness in plant communities: the importance of the regeneration niche. Biol. Rev. 52, 107–145 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Huston, M. A. General hypothesis of species diversity. Am. Nat. 113, 81–101 (1979).

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  12. Brown, V. K. & Gange, A. C. Herbivory by soil dwelling insects depresses plant species richness. Funct. Ecol. 3, 667–671 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Dobson, A. & Crawley, M. J. Pathogens and the structure of plant communities. TREE 9, 393–398 (1994).

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  14. de Ruiter, P. C., Neutel, A. & Moore, J. C. Energetics, patterns of interaction strengths and stability in real ecosystems. Science 269, 1257–1260 (1995).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Bever, J. D., Westover, K. M. & Antonovics, J. Incorporating the soil community into plant population dynamics: the utility of the feedback approach. J. Ecol. 85, 561–571 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Smith, S. E. & Read, D. J. Mycorrhizal Symbiosis2nd edn (Academic, San Diego, (1997)).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Grime, J. P., Mackey, J. M. L., Hillier, S. H. & Read, D. J. Floristic diversity in a model system using experimental microcosms. Nature 328, 420–422 (1987).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Walker, C., Mizue, C. W. & McNabb, H. S. Populations of endogonaceous fungi at two locations in central Iowa. Can. J. Bot. 60, 2518–2529 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Johnson, N. C., Tilman, D. & Wedin, D. Plant and soil controls on mycorrhizal fungal communities. Ecology 73, 2034–2042 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Helgason, T., Daniell, T. J., Husband, R., Fitter, A. H. & Young, J. P. Y. Ploughing up the wood-wide web? Nature 394, 431 (1998).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Streitwolf-Engel, R., Boller, T., Wiemken, A. & Sanders, I. R. Clonal growth traits of two Pruncella species are determined by co-occurring arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi from a calcareous grassland. J. Ecol. 85, 181–191 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. van der Heijden, M. G. A., Boller, T., Wiemken, A. & Sanders, I. R. Different arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal species are potential determinants of plant community structure. Ecology 79, 2082–2091 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Johnson, N. C. Can fertilisation of soil select less mutualistic mycorrhizae? Ecol. Appl. 3, 749–757 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Koide, R. T. & Li, M. Appropriate controls for vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizal research. New Phytol. 111, 35–44 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Krebs, C. J. Ecological Methodology(Harper Collins Publishers, New York, (1989)).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Olsen, S. R. & Sommers, L. E. in Methods of Soil Analysispart 2 403–430 (ed. A. L. Page) (Am. Soc. Agron., Madison, (1982)).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Jakobsen, I. & Rosendahl, L. Carbon flow into soil and external hyphae from roots of mycorrhizal cucumber plants. New Phytol. 115, 77–83 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. SAS/STAT users guide. Release 6.04 (eds Allen, J. F., Ashton, J. J., Cohen, B. L., Cornell, R. Jr, Early, R., et al.) (SAS Institute, Cary, NC, (1989)).

Download references


This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the NaturalSciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. We thank P. Leadley, D. Read, P. Salzer, B. Schmid, J.Stocklin and D. Tilman for comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ian R. Sanders.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

van der Heijden, M., Klironomos, J., Ursic, M. et al. Mycorrhizal fungal diversity determines plant biodiversity, ecosystem variability and productivity. Nature 396, 69–72 (1998).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing