Consequences of Inoculation with Native Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi for Root Colonization and Survival of Artemisia Tridentata ssp. Seedlings After Transplanting

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In arid environments, the propagule density of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) may limit the extent of the plant–AMF symbiosis. Inoculation of seedlings with AMF could alleviate this problem, but the success of this practice largely depends on the ability of the inoculum to multiply and colonize the growing root system after transplanting. These phenomena were investigated in Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis (Wyoming big sagebrush) seedlings inoculated with native AMF. Seedlings were first grown in a greenhouse in soil without AMF (non-inoculated seedlings) or with AMF (inoculated seedlings). In spring and fall, 3-month-old seedlings were transplanted outdoors to 24-L pots containing soil from a sagebrush habitat (spring and fall mesocosm experiments) or to a recently burned sagebrush habitat (spring and fall field experiments). Five or 8 months after transplanting, colonization was about twofold higher in inoculated than noninoculated seedlings, except for the spring field experiment. In the mesocosm experiments, inoculation increased survival during the summer by 24 % (p= 0.011). In the field experiments, increased AMF colonization was associated with increases in survival during cold and dry periods; 1 year after transplanting, survival of inoculated seedlings was 27 % higher than that of non-inoculated ones (p< 0.001). To investigate possible mechanisms by which AMF increased survival, we analyzed water use efficiency (WUE) based on foliar 13C/12C isotope ratios (δ 13C). A positive correlation between AMF colonization and δ 13C values was observed in the spring mesocosm experiment. In contrast, inoculation did not affect the δ 13C values of fall transplanted seedlings that were collected the subsequent spring. The effectiveness of AMF inoculation on enhancing colonization and reducing seedling mortality varied among the different experiments, but average effects were estimated by meta-analyses. Several months after transplanting, average AMF colonization was in proportion 84 % higher in inoculated than non-inoculated seedlings (p= 0.0042), while the average risk of seedling mortality was 42 % lower in inoculated than non-inoculated seedlings (p = 0.047). These results indicate that inoculation can increase AMF colonization over the background levels occurring in the soil, leading to higher rates of survival.