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Cooperative interactions among species, termed mutualisms, have played a crucial role in the evolution of life on Earth. However, despite key potential benefits to partners, there are many cases in which two species cease to cooperate and mutualisms break down. What factors drive the evolutionary breakdown of mutualism? We examined the pathways toward breakdowns of the mutualism between plants and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. By using a comparative approach, we identify ∼25 independent cases of complete mutualism breakdown across global seed plants. We found that breakdown of cooperation was only stable when host plants (i) partner with other root symbionts or (ii) evolve alternative resource acquisition strategies. Our results suggest that key mutualistic services are only permanently lost if hosts evolve alternative symbioses or adaptations.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Publication Date





5229 - 5234


cooperation, macroevolution, mutualism, mycorrhizae, symbiosis, Biological Evolution, Environment, Feedback, Physiological, Mycorrhizae, Plants, Symbiosis