Nitrogen isotopes link mycorrhizal fungi and plants to nitrogen dynamics


In this review, we synthesize field and culture studies of the 15N/14N (expressed as δ15N) of autotrophic plants, mycoheterotrophic plants, parasitic plants, soil, and mycorrhizal fungi to assess the major controls of isotopic patterns. One major control for plants and fungi is the partitioning of nitrogen (N) into either 15N‐depleted chitin, ammonia, or transfer compounds or 15N‐enriched proteinaceous N. For example, parasitic plants and autotrophic hosts are similar in δ15N (with no partitioning between chitin and protein), mycoheterotrophic plants are higher in δ15N than their fungal hosts, presumably with preferential assimilation of fungal protein, and autotrophic, mycorrhizal plants are lower in 15N than their fungal symbionts, with saprotrophic fungi intermediate, because mycorrhizal fungi transfer 15N‐depleted ammonia or amino acids to plants. Similarly, nodules of N2‐fixing bacteria transferring ammonia are often higher in δ15N than their plant hosts. N losses via denitrification greatly influence bulk soil δ15N, whereas δ15N patterns within soil profiles are influenced both by vertical patterns of N losses and by N transfers within the soil–plant system. Climate correlates poorly with soil δ15N; climate may primarily influence δ15N patterns in soils and plants by determining the primary loss mechanisms and which types of mycorrhizal fungi and associated vegetation dominate across climatic gradients.


Earth Systems Research Center

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New Phytologist



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© 2012 The Authors. New Phytologist.