Plants Use Mycorrhizal Fungi to Warn Each Other of Incoming Threats

The March 2015 issue of New Phytologist is a Special Issue focusing on the “ecology and evolution of mycorrhizas.” This is the second of two articles from that issue that I am reviewing. Read the first review here.

Interplant signalling through hyphal networks by David Johnson and Lucy Gilbert

When an individual plant is attacked by an insect or fungal pest, it can warn neighboring plants – prompting them to produce compounds that either repel the pests or attract beneficial organisms that can fight off the pests. There are two main pathways for a plant to send these communications: through the air by way of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) or through the soil by way of a vast collection of fungal hyphae called mycelium. Plant communication by aerial release of VOC’s has been well documented; communication via mycelium, however, is a fairly recent discovery, and there is much left to learn.

“The length of hyphae in the soil and the ability of mycorrhizal fungi to form multiple points of entry into roots can lead to the formation of a common mycelial network (CMN) that interconnects two or more plants.” These CMN’s are known to play “key roles in facilitating nutrient transport and redistribution.” We now understand that they can also “facilitate defense against insect herbivores and foliar necrotophic fungi by acting as conduits for interplant signaling.” The purpose of this research is to explore the “mechanisms, evolutionary consequences, and circumstances” surrounding the evolution of this process and to “highlight key gaps in our understanding.”

interplant signaling

An illustration of plant communication (aka interplant signaling) by air and by soil form the article in New Phytologist.

If plants are communicating via CMN’s, how are they doing it? The authors propose three potential mechanisms. The first is by signal molecules being transported “in liquid films on the external surface of hyphae via capillary action or microbes.” They determine that this form of communication would be easily disrupted by soil particles and isn’t likely to occur over long distances. The second mechanism is by molecules being transported within hyphae, passing from cell to cell until they reach their destination. The third mechanism involves an electrical signal induced by wounding.

If signal molecules are involved in the process, what molecules are they? There are some molecules already known to be transported by fungal hyphae (lipids, phosphate transporters, and amino acids) and there are also compounds known to be involved in signaling between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. Exploring these further would be a good place to start. We also need to determine if specific insect and fungal pests or certain types of plant damage result in unique signaling compounds.

It has been established that electrical signals can be produced in response to plant damage. These signals are a result of a process known as membrane depolarization. “A key advantage of electrical-induced defense over mobile chemical is the speed of delivery.” Movement of a molecule through cells occurs significantly slower than an electrical charge, which is important if the distance to transport the message is relatively far and the plant needs to respond quickly to an invasion. Various aspects of fungal physiology and activity have been shown to be driven in part by membrane depolarization, so involving it in interplant signaling isn’t too far-fetched.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

How and why does a system of interplant communication involving mycorrhizal fungi evolve? And what are the costs and benefits to the plants and fungi involved? Determining costs and benefits will depend largely on further establishing the signaling mechanisms. Exploring real world systems will also help us answer these questions. For example, in a stable environment such as a managed grassland where CMNs are well developed, a significant loss of plants to a pest or disease could be devastating for the mycorrhizal community, so “transferring warning signals” would be highly beneficial. Conversely, in an unstable environment where a CMN is less established, assisting in interplant signaling may be less of an imperative. Regarding questions concerning the degree of specialization involved in herbivore-plant-fungal interactions: if a “generic herbivore signal” is sent to a neighboring plant that is not typically affected by the attacking herbivore, the cost to the plant in putting up its defenses and to the fungus in transporting the message is high and unnecessary. So, in an environment where there are many different plant species, species-specific signals may be selected for over time; in areas where there are few plant species, a generic signal would suffice.

As research continues, the mysteries of “defense-related” interplant communication via CMN’s will be revealed. Field studies are particularly important because they can paint a more accurate picture compared to “highly simplified laboratory conditions.” One exciting thing about this type of communication is that it may mean that some plants are communicating with each other across great distances, since “some species of fungi can be vast.” CMNs can also target specific plants, and compared to communication via aerial VOC’s, the signal will not be diluted by the wind.

Since I am in the process of reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, I have decided to include her description of a tree-mycorrhizal fungi relationship:

The trees in a forest are often interconnected by subterranean networks of mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. The mycorrhizal symbiosis enables the fungi to forage for mineral nutrients in the soil and deliver them to the tree in exchange for carbohydrates. The mycorrhizae may form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected. These fungal networks appear to redistribute the wealth of carbohydrates from tree to tree. A kind of Robin Hood, they take from the rich and give to the poor so that all the trees arrive at the same carbon surplus at the same time. They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival. All flourishing is mutual.

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3 thoughts on “Plants Use Mycorrhizal Fungi to Warn Each Other of Incoming Threats

  1. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 20/03/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  2. Pingback: The Whispering World of Plants: "The Wood Wide Web. | Equities Canada

  3. Pingback: The Whispering World of Plants: "The Wood Wide Web" | Equities Canada

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