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August 17, 2015

Fertile Fungus that’s Saving the World

Mycorrhizal Image

Mycorrhizal Image: Courtesy of Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS). 2000. Soil Biology Primer. Rev. ed. Ankeny, IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Let’s talk about fungus. Fungus is more than mold in your bathroom, or yeasts in your breads; fungus plays an ever expanding role on global ecosystems and agriculture.  Cambridge University released a study this May that shows fungus may reduce water eutrophication and increase crop yields.

Within soils are a myriad of microscopic biology. One family of microscopic organisms, mycorrhizae, is a symbiotic soil fungi that attaches itself to vascular roots of plants all across the world.  The mycorrhizae was first recognized in the mid-19th century; however, scientists are still learning how they react with crops and wildland ecology.

Rice plants that were “colonized” with mycorrhizae triggered genetic expressions to change in the rice plants, as a result of which both the root mass and Phosphorus intake increased up to 70%-100%.  Why is this important?  Because of 16 essential nutrients that are needed for plants, Phosphorus (along with Nitrogen), is one of the most critical and due to its importance, it is characterized as a macro-nutrient.  Phosphorus is a component of the photosynthesis proteins and is used by the plant for cell division and new tissue development. In other words – growth.

Phosphorus, however, is one of the most detrimental nutrients to the environment when applied incorrectly.   It is mined heavily for agricultural uses and, via run-off, it is one of the leading causes of water pollution. The heavy concentration of nitrogen and phosphorous in run-off causes eutrophication of rivers and lakes and is the leading cause of resulting algae blooms, hypoxia and die-off all affected aquatic life. We have all seen pictures of the thousands of dead fish floating under such conditions.

By creating a more efficient soil system with mycorrhizae, the hope is that less applied phosphorous will be needed with a corresponding slower depletion rate of Phosphorous through mining and less environmental pollution via run-off.

Redwood Mycorrhizae

Redwood Saplings without and with Mycorrhizae: Courtesy of M. Amaranthus, USDA

The Cambridge researchers plan to inoculate agricultural land with mycorrhizae with a view to increasing crop efficiency of the top crops such as rice, wheat and corn.  The idea is to improve yields with less need for applied phosphorous and ultimately to reduce famine in areas where mycorrhizae have been depleted or where mycorrhizae can be utilized for higher crop efficiency. In particular, mycorrhizae might help sustain crops in arid regions, which is an issue that takes on greater significance with changing global rain patterns.

Not bad for a fungus? A significant contributor toward improved crop yields, a possible solution to marginal areas of agriculture AND an environmental savior for that much-overlooked part of the world….water.

Want to see how mycorrhizae looks in a microscope?  Check out this guide on how to identify and view them in stereo microscopes here.  You will need a stereo dissecting microscope, which can be found here at Microscope.com.

Learn more about the Cambridge Study on Cambridge’s Website at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/fungus-enhances-crop-roots-and-could-be-a-future-bio-fertiliser