Life histories of symbiotic rhizobia and mycorrhizal fungi

R. Ford Denison, E. Toby Kiers

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

142 Scopus citations


Research on life history strategies of microbial symbionts is key to understanding the evolution of cooperation with hosts, but also their survival between hosts. Rhizobia are soil bacteria known for fixing nitrogen inside legume root nodules. Arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi are ubiquitous root symbionts that provide plants with nutrients and other benefits. Both kinds of symbionts employ strategies to reproduce during symbiosis using host resources; to repopulate the soil; to survive in the soil between hosts; and to find and infect new hosts. Here we focus on the fitness of the microbial symbionts and how interactions at each of these stages has shaped microbial life-history strategies. During symbiosis, microbial fitness could be increased by diverting more resources to individual reproduction, but that may trigger fitness-reducing host sanctions. To survive in the soil, symbionts employ sophisticated strategies, such as persister formation for rhizobia and reversal of spore germination by mycorrhizae. Interactions among symbionts, from rhizobial quorum sensing to fusion of genetically distinct fungal hyphae, increase adaptive plasticity. The evolutionary implications of these interactions and of microbial strategies to repopulate and survive in the soil are largely unexplored.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)R775-R785
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number18
StatePublished - Sep 27 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are grateful to Egbert Leigh, Jan Jansa and Erik Verbruggen for comments on this manuscript. Our research on symbiosis has been supported by the National Science Foundation (R.F.D.) and by NWO ‘Vidi’ and ‘Meervoud’ grants (E.T.K.).


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