Symbiont switching and alternative resource acquisition strategies drive mutualism breakdown

Gijsbert D.A. Werner*, Johannes H.C. Cornelissen, William K. Cornwell, Nadejda A. Soudzilovskaia, Jens Kattge, Stuart A. West, E. Toby Kiers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Cooperative interactions among species, termed mutualisms, have played a crucial role in the evolution of life on Earth. However, despite key potential benefits to partners, there are many cases in which two species cease to cooperate and mutualisms break down. What factors drive the evolutionary breakdown of mutualism? We examined the pathways toward breakdowns of the mutualism between plants and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. By using a comparative approach, we identify ∼25 independent cases of complete mutualism breakdown across global seed plants. We found that breakdown of cooperation was only stable when host plants (i) partner with other root symbionts or (ii) evolve alternative resource acquisition strategies. Our results suggest that key mutualistic services are only permanently lost if hosts evolve alternative symbioses or adaptations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5229-5234
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number20
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2018


  • Cooperation
  • Macroevolution
  • Mutualism
  • Mycorrhizae
  • Symbiosis


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