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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The economics of mutualisms: optimal utiliztion of mycorrhizal mutualistic partners by plants


Abstract. Can choice of mutualistic partners and the degree of their utilization determine (1) mutualistic partner coexistence, (2) relative abundance of mutualistic partners, and (3) environment-dependent changes in relative abundance? We investigate these questions in the context of the plant–mycorrhizal fungal mutualism by building a biological market model potentially applicable to other mutualisms as well. We examine the situation where a single plant selectively utilizes member(s) of a group of ectomycorrhizal potential trading partners. Under biologically realistic circumstances, the plant may simultaneously utilize multiple partners, its degree of utilization determining the community structure of the fungi. If utilization of multiple partners is optimal, the marginal cost of acquiring additional nitrogen from every trading partner must be equal while the marginal cost of acquiring it from any unutilized partner must be larger. Because the plant’s nitrogen demand is light dependent, the composition of the fungal species among its trading partners changes along light-availability gradients. We discuss the design of an experiment to test the key prediction of our model, the equalization of marginal cost.

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