Photosynthate transfer from an autotrophic orchid to conspecific heterotrophic protocorms through a common mycorrhizal network

David J. Read, John Haggar, Emily Magkourilou, Emily Durant, David Johnson, Jonathan R. Leake, Katie J. Field

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The minute ‘dust seeds’ of some terrestrial orchids preferentially germinate and develop as mycoheterotrophic protocorms near conspecific adult plants. Here we test the hypothesis that mycorrhizal mycelial connections provide a direct pathway for transfer of recent photosynthate from conspecific green orchids to achlorophyllous protocorms. Mycelial networks of Ceratobasidium cornigerum connecting green Dactylorhiza fuchsii plants with developing achlorophyllous protocorms of the same species were established on oatmeal or water agar before the shoots of green plants were exposed to 14CO2. After incubation for 48 h, the pattern of distribution of fixed carbon was visualised in intact entire autotrophic/protocorm systems using digital autoradiography and quantified in protocorms by liquid scintillation counting. Both methods of analysis revealed accumulation of 14C above background levels in protocorms, confirming that autotrophic plants supply carbon to juveniles via common mycorrhizal networks. Despite some accumulation of plant-fixed carbon in the fungal mycelium grown on oatmeal agar, a greater amount of carbon was transferred to protocorms growing on water agar, indicating that the polarity of transfer may be influenced by sink strength. We suggest this transfer pathway may contribute significantly to the pattern and processes determining localised orchid establishment in nature, and that ‘parental nurture’ via common mycelial networks may be involved in these processes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)398-406
Number of pages9
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2024


  • carbon
  • common mycorrhizal networks
  • Dactylorhiza fuchsii
  • distribution
  • fungi
  • mycorrhiza
  • orchids
  • parental nurture


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