•We investigated the functional significance of extraradical mycorrhizal networks produced by geographically different isolates of the arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal (AMF) species Glomus mosseae and Glomus intraradices. •A two-dimensional experimental system was used to visualize and quantify intact extraradical mycelium (ERM) spreading from Medicago sativa roots. Growth, phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) nutrition were assessed in M. sativa plants grown in microcosms. • The AMF isolates were characterized by differences in extent and interconnectedness of ERM. Phenotypic fungal variables, such as total hyphal length, hyphal density, hyphal length per mm of total or colonized root length, were positively correlated with M. sativa growth response variables, such as total shoot biomass and plant P content. • The utilization of an experimental system in which size, growth rate, viability and interconnectedness of ERM extending from mycorrhizal roots are easily quantified under realistic conditions allows the simultaneous evaluation of different isolates and provides data with a predictive value for selection of efficient AMF
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