Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Fungal Internet - Millions of Years Old

Hidden under your feet is an information superhighway that allows plants to communicate and help each other out. It’s made of fungi!

The BBC have released an article summarising and putting into context a series of observations made about the ability many plants have to form intimate relationships with fungi growing around their roots.

Mycorrhiza have been known for many years now as a symbiotic relationship that allows plants to grow better in areas that have poor soil - many conifer plantations in the UK are examples of vigorous growth in very poor soil that is assisted by fungi. The fungi are thought to be fed carbohydrates by the plant while the plant gains access to nutrients (e.g. phosphates) that are scarce and growth limiting.

However we are beginning to realise that the fungi do far more. Networks of fungal threads connect up many plant roots, not only providing access to nutrients but also acting as a communication system between plants! This has good and bad consequences for individual plants:

  • Large, established 'parent' trees have been shown to provide food to young seedlings
  • Nutrients are known to flow between trees of different species
  • 'Warnings' are exchanged between plants when pathogens are causing damage to one plant so that the others can bolster their defences against infection
  • Some 'malevolent' species use the fungal internet to 'steal' food from others
  • Some plants will use the fungal internet to 'poison' their neighbours and gain a growth advantage 

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