Our latest generation of children are growing up in a world full of digital technology – they’ve never known life without phones or the Internet. I can still remember the long winded dial-up connection, but it seems that over just a short space of time the majority have become utterly dependant on this invisible net. However, this World Wide Web that we’ve all become so reliant on is not really that old at all – in fact it only marks its 28th Birthday in March this year!
So what has all this computer-jargon got to do with the soil, or indeed fungi?
Well, it seems that the ‘World Wide Web’ that humans invented at the end of the last century is not such a new idea at all. For the last 450 million years, nature has been operating its very own information super highway by utilising the unique relationship that plants have with fungi. Through this connection, neighbouring plants are able to communicate with one another, sharing nutrients, warning each other of potential dangers and even helping each other out in times of need. Just like our own Internet, individuals can interconnect and exchange information using the power of fungi. So, rather than just growing silently on their own, the plants in your back garden may actually be talking to one another by connecting up to the underground fungal network – or as many scientists have coined it, the Wood Wide Web!
Scientists believe that between 80 to 95 percent of all terrestrial plants form symbiotic relationships with a specific group of fungi – the mycorrhizal fungi. These special organisms produce a network of small underground filaments called hyphae, which are vital to the health of nearly all plants on Earth. In fact, it’s believed that the association between plants and fungi was a major factor in the survival of plants when they started to evolve on land – without them life just wouldn’t be the same!
This mutualistic relationship works as both partners deliver benefits to one another, allowing both fungi and host plant to not only survive in their environment, but also thrive. As scientists better understand how this system operates, the importance of the mycorrhizal relationship within soil is becoming more apparent. At 59 Degrees we see this system is vital for producing healthy soils and therefore healthy plants, which is why we create not just soil, but a compost community made up of all the ingredients used in healthy thriving ecosystems, including mycorrhizae.
Despite the evolutionary adaptations plants have undergone since the first interactions between mycorrhizae and plants, the way in which they function together has remained pretty much unchanged. Mycorrhizal fungi comprise a mass of mycelium, which in turn is made up of many thousands of hyphae, and it’s these small filaments that colonize the root system of the plants around them. By tapping into the root system of a host plant, the hyphae increase the water and nutrient absorption capabilities while the plant provides the fungus with carbon from the metabolic process of photosynthesis. As this process takes place, there’s an incredibly clever communication mechanism making sure that each partner agrees to the relationship. In the case of arbuscular mycorrhizae, for example, the host plant actually guides the fungus to grow towards its roots by releasing hormones called strigolactones. The fungus then responds by producing chemicals which prevents the plant from turning its defences against the incoming hyphae – is this not ridiculously clever?
What’s the deal?
Without these mycorrhizal relationships some plants (the obligatory mycorrhizal plants) cannot survive at all. These plants tend to have thick non-branching roots that cannot effectively tap for nutrients and their seeds may not germinate without the presence of mycorrhizal fungi. On the other hand, some plants can survive without mycorrhizae but if nutrients become scarce they are able to form mycorrhizal relationships (these are the facultative mycorrhizal plants), another beautiful example the intrinsic intelligence of nature.
Despite their different levels of dependence on mycorrhizae, both these plant groups are able to receive beneficial links with fungi. As mentioned above, one of the benefits is an increased nutrient delivery system to the plant. As a plant grows, the roots slowly deplete the soil of nutrients, or absorb them at a greater rate than can be sustained. In contrast, hyphae are much smaller than root hairs which, not only offers a much greater surface area, but also allows a reach into smaller pores in the soil, thus increasing the ability to absorb more essential plant nutrients (copper, zinc, iron and nitrogen to name a few of the current 42 we know of). In addition, the fungi can also extract more locked-up nutrients by decomposing organic matter with their extracellular digestion. In return for this nutrient boost, the plant offers the mycorrhizae about 20 percent of the carbon produced through photosynthesis – a pretty darn good deal!
It’s not just nutrients these fungi can help the plant obtain however; water is also absorbed and transferred in mycorrhizal relationships. Furthermore, the fungal network acts as a water storage structure and therefore the drought tolerance of plants in mycorrhizal relationships is substantially increased. This occurrence could have huge implications in modern farming practices as about 70 percent of water use worldwide is attributed to agriculture. The physical barrier that mycelium provide can also protect plants from pathogens and greatly improve soil structure by binding wonderfully formed aggregates, another vital contribution, given the current global soil erosion issues.
The more we delve into the living world we see not only a will for survival but an equal if not greater will to collaborate. Interestingly, many millions of years ago the majority of – if not all – mycorrhizal fungi were pathogenic fungi, thereby eventually killing their host. These murderous fungi realized the errors of their ways and over millions of years evolved to form mutualistic relationships with their hosts. We refer to these new and improved fungi as mycorrhizal species (mykos derived from Greek “root” and riza “fungus”). We sapiens could definitely benefit from taking a leaf out of the book of the collaborative fungi.
These plant-fungi communication networks are not just limited to two individuals either; several different mycelium networks may combine together to act as one being. Older ‘mother’ trees can support younger saplings by preferentially distributing more nutrients to the most in need. This is an amazing discovery if you consider the way in which we’ve previously viewed nature, and in particular plants. This fungal ‘internet’ demonstrates how seemingly separate organisms are connected and may depend on one another in order to survive. It seems that the Wood Wide Web plays a crucial part in these interactions and in the transfer of information between living organisms.
Just like plants, we humans require nutrients and carbon for survival. In an attempt to nourish ourselves and prosper by cultivating the land, we have inadvertently caused significant soil degradation and erosion. Through trial and error over the centuries during which humans have cultivated the land, we’ve found various methods of producing as much food as we can over a short space of time, an imperative measure to sustain an ever-growing population. Ironically, these practices are by definition unsustainable. Whilst at best, many see soil as a medium in which to root their target species into, at worst, inconvenient, disease-harbouring dirt. Soil as a living, breathing entity and is full of micro and macro life not to confused with lifeless dirt. We neglect this fact at our peril.
Farming practices have caused a whole swathe of major issues, including soil loss, pollution, drought, flooding and contamination of water resources. Although fungi alone cannot solve all of these issues, the likely benefits of incorporating fungi into modern agricultural practices could be huge, but we don’t need to just get them there, we need to look after them, which means tilling practices need to be revised (fungi don’t like ploughs). Droughts and flooding become less and less of a concern as increases in soil water retention and better aggregation are seen in fungal rich soils, this has huge implications for reducing both flooding and drought issues with the added benefit of increased soil stability which will stem the alarming rates of soil erosion currently blighting many different parts of the world. Studies have also shown that not only do mycorrhizae enable better plant growth, but plant diversity also increases as a response to the presence of mycorrhizae. If this natural cooperation between plants and fungi could be applied in agriculture, it is highly probable that many of modern mans concerns would become a thing of the past.
At 59 Degrees we are passionate about creating soils that contain a balance of soil life, particularly though incorporating mycorrhizal fungi. Our products help to create sustainable and resilient soil communities by uniting all the essential properties that make up healthy soil. By harnessing the power of mycorrhizal fungi, soils require significantly less input and in a world governed by economic narratives and stories of scarcity this might act as the catalyst for change; free labour is often enough to turn heads. We are referring of course to the microorganism communities thriving under our feet. Let’s nurture these little fungi so that they may in turn nurture us.
On a final note, as Rachel Carson put so powerfully “The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.” The cues for us to act in a way, which promote beneficial forms of life, are out there for us all to see, whether we as a collective are humble enough to acknowledge them and to act accordingly remain to be seen.