Initial melanin and nitrogen concentrations control the decomposition of ectomycorrhizal fungal litter

Christopher W. Fernandez, Roger T. Koide

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Forest biogeochemical cycling is strongly influenced by the turnover of ectomycorrhizal fungal tissues. Fungal tissues may decompose differently from plant tissues due to their unique chemistry and may be important to understanding ecosystem carbon and nutrient cycles. Melanin is a recalcitrant, complex cell wall polymer commonly found in fungi. Melanin concentration varies significantly among species, which may contribute to the wide variation in their rates of decomposition previously observed. In a comparative experiment we examined decomposition of ectomycorrhizal fungi of varying melanin concentrations. In an additional experiment we examined the effect of melanin biosynthesis inhibition on decomposition of the highly melanized ectomycorrhizal fungus Cenococcum geophilum. Among species, initial melanin concentration was negatively correlated with decomposition while initial nitrogen concentration was positively correlated with decomposition. When melanin synthesis was inhibited, tissues of C.geophilum decomposed significantly faster. We conclude that melanin and nitrogen concentrations may control decomposition of ectomycorrhizal fungi as do lignin and nitrogen concentrations in plant material, and thus may have significant consequences for terrestrial carbon and nutrient cycling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)150-157
Number of pages8
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
StatePublished - Oct 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for funding CWF, and the USDA NIFA and the NSF for funding RTK. We thank Luke McCormack, David Eissenstat, Jason Kaye, Marshall McDaniel and Erica Smithwick for their helpful comments during the preparation of this manuscript. Finally, we thank Håkan Wallander and Kazuhide Nara for some of the fungal isolates used in this study.


  • Carbon cycling
  • Cenococcum geophilum
  • Decomposition
  • Ectomycorrhizal fungi
  • Melanin
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrient cycling


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