Linking agricultural practices, mycorrhizal fungi, and traits mediating plant-insect interactions.

N.A. Barber, E.T. Kiers, N. Theis, R.V. Hazzard, L.S. Adler

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Agricultural management has profound effects on soil communities. Activities such as fertilizer inputs can modify the composition of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) communities, which form important symbioses with the roots of most crop plants. Intensive conventional agricultural management may select for less mutualistic AMF with reduced benefits to host plants compared to organic management, but these differences are poorly understood. AMF are generally evaluated based on their direct growth effects on plants. However, mycorrhizal colonization also may alter plant traits such as tissue nutrients, defensive chemistry, or floral traits, which mediate important plant-insect interactions like herbivory and pollination. To determine the effect of AMF from different farming practices on plant performance and traits that putatively mediate species interactions, we performed a greenhouse study by inoculating Cucumis sativus (cucumber, Cucurbitaceae) with AMF from conventional farms, organic farms, and a commercial AMF inoculum. We measured growth and a suite of plant traits hypothesized to be important predictors of herbivore resistance and pollinator attraction. Several leaf and root traits and flower production were significantly affected by AMF inoculum. Both conventional and organic AMF reduced leaf P content but increased Na content compared to control and commercial AMF. Leaf defenses were unaffected by AMF treatments, but conventional AMF increased root cucurbitacin C, the primary defensive chemical of C. sativus, compared to organic AMF. These effects may have important consequences for herbivore preference and population dynamics. AMF from both organic and conventional farms decreased flower production relative to commercial and control treatments, which may reduce pollinator attraction and plant reproduction. AMF from both farm types also reduced seed germination, but effects on plant growth were limited. Our results suggest that studies only considering AMF effects on growth may overlook changes in plant traits that have the potential to influence interactions, and hence yield, on farms. Given the effects of AMF on plant traits documented here, and the great importance of both herbivores and pollinators to wild and cultivated plants, we advocate for comprehensive assessments of mycorrhizal effects in complex community contexts, with the aim of incorporating multispecies interactions both above and below the soil surface. © 2013 by the Ecological Society of America.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1519-1530
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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