15N in symbiotic fungi and plants estimates nitrogen and carbon flux rates in Arctic tundra. Academic Article uri icon


  • When soil nitrogen is in short supply, most terrestrial plants form symbioses with fungi (mycorrhizae): hyphae take up soil nitrogen, transport it into plant roots, and receive plant sugars in return. In ecosystems, the transfers within the pathway fractionate nitrogen isotopes so that the natural abundance of 15N in fungi differs from that in their host plants by as much as 12% per hundred. Here we present a new method to quantify carbon and nitrogen fluxes in the symbiosis based on the fractionation against 15N during transfer of nitrogen from fungi to plant roots. We tested this method, which is based on the mass balance of 15N, with data from arctic Alaska where the nitrogen cycle is well studied. Mycorrhizal fungi provided 61-86% of the nitrogen in plants; plants provided 8-17% of their photosynthetic carbon to the fungi for growth and respiration. This method of analysis avoids the disturbance of the soil-microbe-root relationship caused by collecting samples, mixing the soil, or changing substrate concentrations. This analytical technique also can be applied to other nitrogen-limited ecosystems, such as many temperate and boreal forests, to quantify the importance for terrestrial carbon and nitrogen cycling of nutrient transfers mediated by mycorrhizae at the plant-soil interface.

publication date

  • April 2006