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Insights into nitrogen and carbon dynamics of ectomycorrhizal and saprotrophic fungi from isotopic evidence


The successful use of natural abundances of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) isotopes in the study of ecosystem dynamics suggests that isotopic measurements could yield new insights into the role of fungi in nitrogen and carbon cycling. Sporocarps of mycorrhizal and saprotrophic fungi, vegetation, and soils were collected in young, deciduous-dominated sites and older, coniferous-dominated sites along a successional sequence at Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. Mycorrhizal fungi had consistently higher δ15N and lower δ13C values than saprotrophic fungi. Foliar δ13C values were always isotopically depleted relative to both fungal types. Foliar δ15N values were usually, but not always, more depleted than those in saprotrophic fungi, and were consistently more depleted than in mycorrhizal fungi. We hypothesize that an apparent isotopic fractionation by mycorrhizal fungi during the transfer of nitrogen to plants may be attributed to enzymatic reactions within the fungi producing isotopically depleted amino acids, which are subsequently passed on to plant symbionts. An increasing difference between soil mineral nitrogen δ15N and foliar δ15N in later succession might therefore be a consequence of greater reliance on mycorrhizal symbionts for nitrogen supply under nitrogen-limited conditions. Carbon signatures of mycorrhizal fungi may be more enriched than those of foliage because the fungi use isotopically enriched photosynthate such as simple sugars, in contrast to the mixture of compounds present in leaves. In addition, some 13C fractionation may occur during transport processes from leaves to roots, and during fungal chitin biosynthesis. Stable isotopes have the potential to help clarify the role of fungi in ecosystem processes.

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Received: 7 January 1998 / Accepted: 9 November 1998

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Hobbie, E., Macko, S. & Shugart, H. Insights into nitrogen and carbon dynamics of ectomycorrhizal and saprotrophic fungi from isotopic evidence. Oecologia 118, 353–360 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1007/s004420050736

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  • Key words Nitrogen dynamics
  • Nitrogen isotope ratio
  • Carbon isotope ratio
  • Mycorrhizal fungi
  • Succession