Fungus/Plant Mutualism


Part A is a photograph showing a white fungal mantle that covers a tree-like structure that has grown from the side of a root. Part B is a micrograph showing ribbon-like hyphae surrounded by spores that are about 30 microns across.
Mycorrhizae. The (a) infection of Pinus radiata (Monterey pine) roots by the hyphae of Amanita muscaria (fly amanita) causes the pine tree to produce many small, branched rootlets. The Amanita hyphae cover these small roots with a white mantle. (b) Spores (the round bodies) and hyphae (thread-like structures) are evident in this light micrograph of an arbuscular mycorrhiza by a fungus on the root of a corn plant. (credit a: modification of work by Randy Molina, USDA; credit b: modification of work by Sara Wright, USDA-ARS; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

OpenStax Biology 2e

One of the most remarkable associations between fungi and plants is the establishment of mycorrhizae. Mycorrhiza, which is derived from the Greek words myco meaning fungus and rhizo meaning root, refers to the fungal partner of a mutualistic association between vascular plant roots and their symbiotic fungi. Nearly 90 percent of all vascular plant species have mycorrhizal partners. In a mycorrhizal association, the fungal mycelia use their extensive network of hyphae and large surface area in contact with the soil to channel water and minerals from the soil into the plant. In exchange, the plant supplies the products of photosynthesis to fuel the metabolism of the fungus.

There are several basic types of mycorrhizae. Ectomycorrhizae (“outside” mycorrhizae) depend on fungi enveloping the roots in a sheath (called a mantle). Hyphae grow from the mantle into the root and envelope the outer layers of the root cells in a network of hyphae called a Hartig net. The fungal partner can belong to the Ascomycota, Basidiomycota or Zygomycota. Endomycorrhizae (“inside” mycorrhizae), also called arbuscular mycorrhizae, are produced when the fungi grow inside the root in a branched structure called an arbuscule (from the Latin for “little trees”). The fungal partners of endomycorrhizal associates all belong to the Glomeromycota. The fungal arbuscules penetrate root cells between the cell wall and the plasma membrane and are the site of the metabolic exchanges between the fungus and the host plant. Orchids rely on a third type of mycorrhiza. Orchids are epiphytes that typically produce very small airborne seeds without much storage to sustain germination and growth. Their seeds will not germinate without a mycorrhizal partner (usually a Basidiomycete). After nutrients in the seed are depleted, fungal symbionts support the growth of the orchid by providing necessary carbohydrates and minerals. Some orchids continue to be mycorrhizal throughout their life cycle.

Other examples of fungus–plant mutualism include the endophytes: fungi that live inside tissue without damaging the host plant. Endophytes release toxins that repel herbivores, or confer resistance to environmental stress factors, such as infection by microorganisms, drought, or heavy metals in soil.


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

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments