Insights into root growth, function, and mycorrhizal abundance from chemical and isotopic data across root orders


Background and aims: Detailed analyses of root chemistry by branching order may provide insights into root function, root lifespan and the abundance of root-associated mycorrhizal fungi in forest ecosystems.

Methods: We examined the nitrogen and carbon stable isotopes (δ15N and δ13C) and concentration (%N and %C) in the fine roots of an arbuscular mycorrhizal tree, Fraxinus mandshurica, and an ectomycorrhizal tree, Larix gmelinii, over depth, time, and across five root branching orders.

Results and conclusions: Larix δ15N increased by 2.3 ‰ from 4th order to 1st order roots, reflecting the increased presence of 15N-enriched ECM fungi on the lower root orders. In contrast, arbuscular mycorrhizal Fraxinus only increased by 0.7 ‰ from 4th order to 1st order roots, reflecting the smaller 15N enrichment and lower fungal mass on arbuscular mycorrhizal fine roots. Isotopic and anatomical mass balance calculations indicate that first, second, and third order roots in ectomycorrhizal Larix averaged 36 %, 23 %, and 8 % fungal tissue by mass, respectively. Using literature values of root production by root branching order, we estimate that about 25 % of fine root production in ECM species like Larix is actually of fungal sheaths. In contrast to %N, %C, and δ15N, δ13C changed minimally across depth, time, and branching order. The homogeneity of δ13C suggests root tissues are constructed from a large well-mixed reservoir of carbon, although compound specific δ13C data is needed to fully interpret these patterns. The measurements developed here are an important step towards explicitly including mycorrhizal production in forest ecosystem carbon budgets.


Earth Systems Research Center

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Plant and Soil



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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012