Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Biology and BioMed Central.

Journal App

google play app store
Open Access Open Badges Research article

The relative ages of ectomycorrhizal mushrooms and their plant hosts estimated using Bayesian relaxed molecular clock analyses

David S Hibbett1* and P Brandon Matheny12

Author Affiliations

1 Biology Department, Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts 01610, USA

2 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee 37996, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Biology 2009, 7:13  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-7-13

Published: 10 March 2009



Ectomycorrhizae (ECM) are symbioses formed by polyphyletic assemblages of fungi (mostly Agaricomycetes) and plants (mostly Pinaceae and angiosperms in the rosid clade). Efforts to reconstruct the evolution of the ECM habit in Agaricomycetes have yielded vastly different results, ranging from scenarios with many relatively recent origins of the symbiosis and no reversals to the free-living condition; a single ancient origin of ECM and many subsequent transitions to the free-living condition; or multiple gains and losses of the association. To test the plausibility of these scenarios, we performed Bayesian relaxed molecular clock analyses including fungi, plants, and other eukaryotes, based on the principle that a symbiosis cannot evolve prior to the origin of both partners. As we were primarily interested in the relative ages of the plants and fungi, we did not attempt to calibrate the molecular clock using the very limited fossil record of Agaricomycetes.


Topologically constrained and unconstrained analyses suggest that the root node of the Agaricomycetes is much older than either the rosids or Pinaceae. The Agaricomycetidae, a large clade containing the Agaricales and Boletales (collectively representing 70% of Agaricomycetes), is also significantly older than the rosids. The relative age of Agaricomycetidae and Pinaceae, however, is sensitive to tree topology, and the inclusion or exclusion of the gnetophyte Welwitschia mirabilis.


The ancestor of the Agaricomycetes could not have been an ECM species because it existed long before any of its potential hosts. Within more derived clades of Agaricomycetes, there have been at least eight independent origins of ECM associations involving angiosperms, and at least six to eight origins of associations with gymnosperms. The first ECM symbioses may have involved Pinaceae, which are older than rosids, but several major clades of Agaricomycetes, such as the Boletales and Russulales, are young enough to have been plesiomorphically associated with either rosids or Pinaceae, suggesting that some contemporary ECM partnerships could be of very ancient origin.