Plant root systems often have complex branching patterns. Models indicate that a complex architecture is only required for the acquisition of immobile resources, such as phosphate; mobile ions, notably nitrate, can be effectively taken up by very restricted root systems. We have tested this prediction using the axr4 mutation of Arabidopsis thaliana, the principal phenotypic effect of which is to reduce the number of lateral roots. Arabidopsis thaliana is not a host for mycorrhizal fungi and so acquires all its nutrients through the root system. In both a pot experiment and a field experiment conducted under natural conditions for A. thaliana, we found that only phosphate, and not nitrate, affected the fitness of the mutant relative to the isogenic wild-type line, Columbia. These results confirm model predictions and have implications both for the evolution of complex root systems and for the design of efficient root systems for crops
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