Plant and Soil

, Volume 303, Issue 1, pp 35-47

First online:

Rock-eating mycorrhizas: their role in plant nutrition and biogeochemical cycles

  • Laura van SchöllAffiliated withDepartment of Soil Quality, Wageningen UniversityNutrient Management Institute
  • , Thomas W. KuyperAffiliated withDepartment of Soil Quality, Wageningen University
  • , Mark M. SmitsAffiliated withDepartment of Soil Quality, Wageningen UniversityLaboratory of Soil Science and Geology, Wageningen UniversityDepartment of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield
  • , Renske LandeweertAffiliated withDepartment of Soil Quality, Wageningen UniversityBlgg, Mariendal 8
  • , Ellis HofflandAffiliated withDepartment of Soil Quality, Wageningen University Email author 
  • , Nico van BreemenAffiliated withLaboratory of Soil Science and Geology, Wageningen University

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A decade ago, tunnels inside mineral grains were found that were likely formed by hyphae of ectomycorrhizal (EcM) fungi. This observation implied that EcM fungi can dissolve mineral grains. The observation raised several questions on the ecology of these “rock-eating” fungi. This review addresses the roles of these rock-eating EcM associations in plant nutrition, biogeochemical cycles and pedogenesis. Research approaches ranged from molecular to ecosystem level scales. Nutrient deficiencies change EcM seedling exudation patterns of organic anions and thus their potential to mobilise base cations from minerals. This response was fungal species-specific. Some EcM fungi accelerated mineral weathering. While mineral weathering could also increase the concentrations of phytotoxic aluminium in the soil solution, some EcM fungi increase Al tolerance through an enhanced exudation of oxalate. Through their contribution to Al transport, EcM hyphae could be agents in pedogenesis, especially podzolisation. A modelling study indicated that mineral tunnelling is less important than surface weathering by EcM fungi. With both processes taken together, the contribution of EcM fungi to weathering may be significant. In the field vertical niche differentiation of EcM fungi was shown for EcM root tips and extraradical mycelium. In the field EcM fungi and tunnel densities were correlated. Our results support a role of rock-eating EcM fungi in plant nutrition and biogeochemical cycles. EcM fungal species-specific differences indicate the need for further research with regard to this variation in functional traits.


Aluminium Base cations Ectomycorrhiza Hyphae Organic anions Podzol Weathering