Soil fungal networks moderate density-dependent survival and growth of seedlings

Minxia Liang, Liuqing Shi, David F R P Burslem, David Johnson, Miao Fang, Xinyi Zhang, Shixiao Yu* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


Pathogenic and mutualistic fungi have contrasting effects on seedling establishment, but it remains unclear whether density-dependent survival and growth are regulated by access to different types of mycorrhizal fungal networks supported by neighbouring adult trees. Here, we conducted an extensive field survey to test how mycorrhizal and pathogenic fungal colonization of arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) and ectomycorrhizal (ECM) seedlings in a subtropical forest respond to density of neighbouring adult trees. In addition, we undertook a hyphal exclusion experiment to explicitly test the role of soil fungal networks in driving density-dependent effects on seedling growth and survival. Conspecific adult density was a strong predictor for the relative abundance of putative pathogens, which was greater in roots of AM than of ECM seedlings, while mycorrhizal fungal abundance and colonization were not consistently affected by conspecific adult density. Both ECM and AM fungal networks counteracted conspecific density-dependent mortality, but ECM fungi were more effective at weakening the negative effects of high seedling density than AM fungi. Our findings reveal a critical role of common fungal networks in mitigating negative density-dependent effects of pathogenic fungi on seedling establishment, which provides mechanistic insights into how soil fungal diversity shapes plant community structure in subtropical forests.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2061-2071
Number of pages11
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number5
Early online date26 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

We are grateful to Yan Xie, Yongning Li and Weinan Ye for theirassistance in the field. We thank the Editor, Prof. Marc-AndreSelosse, and three anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments that further improved the manuscript. This research wasfunded by the National Key Research and Development Programof China (2017YFA0605100) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC grants 31870403, 31830010 ,32071539), and partly supported by awards from the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC NE/M00484 8/1 and NE/R004986/1) and a Newton Advanced Fellowship from the Royal Society (NAF/R1/201192). DJ is also supported by theN8 AgriFood programme.


  • arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi
  • density dependence
  • ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungi
  • hyphal exclusion experiment
  • pathogenic fungi
  • seedling growth
  • seedling survival
  • subtropical forest


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