Negative feedback within a mutualism: host–specific growth of mycorrhizal fungi reduces plant benefit

James D. Bever


A basic tenet of ecology is that negative feedback on abundance plays an important part in the coexistence of species within guilds. Mutualistic interactions generate positive feedbacks on abundance and therefore are not thought to contribute to the maintenance of diversity. Here, I report evidence of negative feedback on plant growth through changes in the composition of their mutualistic fungal symbionts, arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi. Negative feedback results from asymmetries in the delivery of benefit between plant and AM fungal species in which the AM fungus that grows best with the plant Plantago lanceolata is a poor growth promoter for Plantago. Growth of Plantago is, instead, best promoted by the AM fungal species that accumulate with a second plant species, Panicum sphaerocarpon. The resulting community dynamic leads to a decline in mutualistic benefit received by Plantago, and can contribute to the coexistence of these two competing plant species.

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