Coevolution of Land Plants and Mycorrhizae

Part A compares two types of mycorrhizae are shown: ectomycorrhiza and arbuscular mycorrhiza. In ectomycorrhiza, fungal hyphae form a structure called a Hartig net inside the root. The Hartig net forms rows of cells that extend straight down, and branch toward the outside of the root. A fungal mantle surrounds the root. Mycelia extend from the fungal mantle. In arbuscular mycorrhiza, the fungi form finger-like clusters that are connected to mycelia that extend from the root into the soil. Part B is a micrograph of arbuscular mycorrhiza, which appear as grape-like clusters in a root tip.
Two types of mycorrhizae. (a) Ectomycorrhizae and (b) arbuscular or endomycorrhizae have different mechanisms for interacting with the roots of plants. (credit b: MS Turmel, University of Manitoba, Plant Science Department)

OpenStax Biology 2e

Mycorrhizae are the fungal partners of a mutually beneficial symbiotic association that coevolved between roots of vascular plants and fungi. A well-supported theory proposes that fungi were instrumental in the evolution of the root system in plants and contributed to the success of Angiosperms. The bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), which are considered the most ancestral plants and the first to survive and adapt on land, have simple underground rhizoids, rather than a true root system, and therefore cannot survive in dry areas. However, some bryophytes have arbuscular mycorrhizae and some do not.

True roots first appeared in the ancestral vascular plants: Vascular plants that developed a system of thin extensions from their roots would have had a selective advantage over nonvascular plants because they had a greater surface area of contact with the fungal partners than did the rhizoids of mosses and liverworts. The first true roots would have allowed vascular plants to obtain more water and nutrients in the ground.

Fossil records indicate that fungi actually preceded the invasion of ancestral freshwater plants onto dry land. The first association between fungi and photosynthetic organisms on land involved moss-like plants and endophytes. These early associations developed before roots appeared in plants. Slowly, the benefits of the endophyte and rhizoid interactions for both partners led to present-day mycorrhizae: About 90 percent of today’s vascular plants have associations with fungi in their rhizosphere.

The fungi involved in mycorrhizae display many characteristics of ancestral fungi; they produce simple spores, show little diversification, do not have a sexual reproductive cycle, and cannot live outside of a mycorrhizal association. The plants benefited from the association because mycorrhizae allowed them to move into new habitats and allowed the increased uptake of nutrients, which gave them an enormous selective advantage over plants that did not establish symbiotic relationships.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: