Breeding against mycorrhizal symbiosis: Modern cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) varieties perform more poorly than older varieties except at very high phosphorus supply levels

Xin-Xin Wang, Min Zhang, Jian-Dong Sheng, Gu Feng*, Thomas W. Kuyper

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) is an important fiber cash crop, but its root traits related to phosphorus (P) acquisition, including mycorrhizal root traits, are poorly understood. Eight cotton varieties bred in northwestern China that were released between 1950 and 2013 were grown in pots with or without one arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal (AMF) species (Funneliformis mosseae) at three P supply levels (0, 50 and 300 mg P as KH2PO4 kg−1). Eleven root traits were measured and calculated after 7 wk of growth. The more recent accessions had smaller root diameters, acquired less P and produced less biomass, indicating an (inadvertent) varietal selection for thinner roots that provided less cortical space for AMF, which then increased the need for a high P fertilizer level. At the two lower P levels, the mycorrhizal plants acquired more P and produced more biomass than non-mycorrhizal plants (3.2 vs. 0.9 mg P per plant; 1.8 vs. 0.9 g biomass per plant at P0; 14.5 vs. 1.7 mg P per plant; and 4.7 vs. 1.6 g biomass per plant at P50). At the highest P level, the mycorrhizal plants acquired more P than non-mycorrhizal plants (18.8 vs. 13.4 mg per P plant), but there was no difference in biomass (6.2 vs. 6.3 g per plant). At the intermediate P level, root diameter was significantly positively correlated with shoot biomass, P concentration and the P content of mycorrhizal plants. The results of our study support the importance of the outsourcing model of P acquisition in the root economics space framework. Inadvertent varietal selection in the last decades, resulting in thinner roots and a lower benefit from AMF, has led to a lower productivity of cotton varieties at moderate P supply (i.e., when mycorrhizal, the average biomass of older varieties 5.0 g per plant vs. biomass of newer varieties 4.4 g per plant), indicating the need to rethink cotton breeding efforts in order to achieve high yields without very high P input. One feasible way to solve the problem of inadvertent varietal selection for cotton is to be aware of the trade-offs between the root do-it-yourself strategy and the outsourcing towards AMF strategy, and to consider both morphological and mycorrhizal root traits when breeding cotton varieties.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)701-715
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Integrative Agriculture
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 3 Mar 2023


  • arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi
  • cotton varieties
  • outsourcing
  • phosphorus acquisition
  • plant breeding
  • root economics space


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