Using Plant Root and Mycorrhizal Fungal Traits to Predict Soil Structure

The March 2015 issue of New Phytologist is a Special Issue exploring the “ecology and evolution of mycorrhizas.” A mycorrhiza is a symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of a plant. The introductory editorial of this special issue asserts that “almost all land plant species form a symbiosis with mycorrhizal fungi.” Generally, the association benefits both plant and fungus. The plant gains greater access to water and mineral nutrients by the way of fungal hyphae, and the fungus recieves carbohydrates (glucose and sucrose) that have been synthesized in the leaves of the plant and transported down into its roots. We have been aware of this relationship since at least the middle of the 19th century, but recent advances in technology have given us new insight into just how extensive and important it is . “Plants cannot be considered as isolated individuals anymore, but as metaorganisms or holobionts encompassing an active microbial community re-programming host physiology.”

However, there are still “critical gaps” in our understanding of mycorrhizas, hence the special issue of New Phytologist. In this issue they endeavor to address the following questions: “How is the balance of mutualism maintained between plants and fungi? What is the role of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil ecosystem? What controls fungal community composition, and how is diversity maintained?” There is so much more to learn, but the research presented in this issue has us moving in the right direction. If you are interested in this sort of thing, I encourage you to check out the entire issue. I have picked out just 2 of the 32 articles to present here – one this week and the other next week.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Plant root and mycorrhizal fungal traits for understanding soil aggregation by Matthias C. Rillig, Carlos A. Aguilar-Trigueros, Joana Bergmann, Erik Verbruggen, Stavros D. Veresoglou, and Anika Lehmann

Soil structure is determined by the size, shape, and extent of soil aggregates and the resulting pore spaces found between them. The arrangement of soil aggregates and pore spaces helps determine the availability and movement of water and air and also has an influence on the growth and movement of micro- and macroorganisims, including fungi, plant roots, bacteria, and arthropods. The authors state that “soil aggregation is important for root growth and for a wide range of soil features and ecosystem process rates, such as carbon storage and resistance to erosion.”

Soil aggregates are composed mainly of clay particles, organic matter (including plant roots), organic compounds (produced by bacteria and fungi), and fungal hyphae. There has been plenty of research on soil aggregation, but much of it is focused on management practices and physical chemical factors. Less is known about the contribution of plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi to the formation and stabilization of soil aggregates. We know they play a role, but we lack understanding about the extent to which soil aggregation can be predicted not just by abiotic factors but also by the presence of plants and mycorrhizal fungi. The authors of this paper propose a widespread, trait-based approach to researching this topic, recognizing that “summarizing ecological characteristics of species by means of traits has become an essential tool in plant ecology.”

Possible traits to be considered were grouped into two categories: formation-related traits and stabilization-related traits. Formation refers to “the initial binding together of particles” to form an aggregate. Stabilization is a process in which aggregates are “increasingly resistant to the application of disintegrating forces, such as water penetrating into pores.” These two processes (along with disintegration) are occurring simultaneously in virtually all soils, but they “may be executed by different organisms expressing different traits.” Some of the formation traits include length, extension ability, and relative growth of roots and hyphae; root and hyphae exudate quality and quantity; and the “ability of roots or hyphae to bring soil particles together by moving them, leading to potential aggregation.” Stabilization traits include tensile strength, density, and “entangling ability” of roots and hyphae; water repellency of the aggregates and cementation capability of the exudates; and the life span, palatability, and repair capacity of roots and hyphae.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

The amount of time and effort it will take to measure the traits of each and every plant and mycorrhizal fungi species and to determine the extent to which those traits contribute to soil aggregation will be considerable. The authors acknowledge that “some of these traits will be relatively easy to measure,” while “others will be quite challenging.” However, as technologies advance, the mysterious world under our feet should become easier to explore. As the traits of each species of plant and fungi are measured, a database can be constructed and eventually used to determine the plant/fungi combinations that are the best fits for restoring and conserving the soils of specific regions.

Ultimately, this research may help us answer various questions, including whether or not we can use a survey of plant and mycorrhizal fungi (along with soil type, climate, and management) to predict soil aggregation. Ecosytem restoration efforts may also benefit if we are able to produce “tailor-made mycorrhizal fungi inocula and seed mixes” in order to “enhance soil aggregation.” Better understanding of these traits could also be applied to sustainable agriculture in areas such as crop breeding and cover crop selection. This research is in the hypothesis phase right now, and “only controlled experiments employing a range of plant and fungal species” can reveal the role that certain plant root and mycorrhizal fungal traits play in soil aggregation as well as the full range of applications that this information might have.

Speaking of soil, did you know that the 68th United Nations General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Soils? The purpose of this declaration is to “increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.” You can read a list of “specific objectives” on their About page.

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2 thoughts on “Using Plant Root and Mycorrhizal Fungal Traits to Predict Soil Structure

  1. Pingback: Plants Use Mycorrhizal Fungi to Warn Each Other of Incoming Threats | awkward botany

  2. Pingback: Plant roots may accelerate carbon loss from soils

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