Abstract In this paper we suggest that the field of fungal ecology may benefit from the use of optimality models in the context of an ‘optimality research program’ (ORP). An ORP is a research program in the sense of modern philosopher of science Lakatos' [1978. The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: philosophical papers, vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge] seminal work. An optimality research program has a lengthy history and record of success in the field of behavioural ecology, but has been seldom employed in fungal ecology. We discuss the ORP and provide some examples of how optimality models may be useful in fungal ecology. We suggest that such an approach may benefit experimental fungal ecologists by: providing a framework for organizing knowledge; generating hypotheses; helping in the planning of experiments; aiding in the interpretation of results; and directing the next steps of an experimental research program. We illustrate these benefits by sketching out how an ORP might be used to answer some fundamental questions about the interactions between host plants and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.