How Does One Species Become Dominant Partner In Mutualistic Relationships? Study Reveals

First Posted: Feb 01, 2016 11:59 AM EST

Dominance is common among mutualistic relationships, even among even among plant species. The arrangement is, one plant acquires essential nutrients, like phosphorous and potassium and in return the fungus receives sugars and carbon. This partnership is known as mutualism, where two species work together. However, one of the two always becomes the dominant partner in these kinds of mutualistic relationships. In the latest study, scientists from the University of Oxford are shedding light on how one species becomes the dominant partner.

"What we're looking at in this paper is the theory that when you have two species cooperating, one can be "favored" - or naturally selected - to harm the other," Stu West, coauthor of the study, said in a news release. "This makes things tougher for the other species, causing it to become more reliant.

For their experiment, the researchers found that a Mycorrhizal fungus will fasten itself around the roots of a plant, which creates a setting for mutual nutrient exchange among the two. The team used a mathematical model to show how one species becomes the dominant partner in the relationship, where it does harm to the other, therefore forcing it to be more dependent. A number of resource-trading 'games' were carried out, where one of the partners, the mycorrhizal fungus could develop the ability to harm its partner. The fungus did develop this ability quite easy.

"If the fungi can make it harder for the plants to acquire these resources and there is empirical evidence that fungi can upset the physiology of plants and their ability to get these resources directly, which sparked our theory - then the plants are forced to trade with the fungi," said West. "Even when individuals are cooperating, they're still looking out for their own interests. One is essentially double-crossing the other."

The findings of this study were published in Nature Communications.

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