Plants Use An Internet Made of Fungus

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Plants Use An Internet Made of Fungus


Imagine you’re walking through a forest. Everything might seem quiet…but beneath
your feet is a flurry of conversation. All the plants around you are actually talking
to each other. The trees and the shrubs and the flowers are
passing information back and forth, with serious life and death consequences. So, how are they communicating? They’re using a giant network of fungi—one
so pervasive and powerful that some scientists have started comparing it to the Internet. They’re calling it the “Wood Wide Web.” I’m Anna, and this is Gross Science. The so-called Wood Wide Web is made up of
what are called “mycorrhizal fungi.” There are many different types of mycorrhizal
fungi, but generally these little guys will grow on the roots of plants and provide them
with water and nutrients—like nitrogen and phosphorus—in exchange for sugars from the
plant. While they’re incredibly thin, the threads
of the fungi can be up to 1000 times the length of a tree root. This allows the fungi to connect together
many different plants. Once connections are made, the fungi can act
almost like the neurons in our brain, transporting signals from plant to plant. And these networks are everywhere. It’s estimated that around 90% of land plants
are connected to some kind of mycorrhizal network. So, how can plants use these networks? Well, to begin with, they can help each other
out in times of stress. For example, during the fall months, when
paper birch trees lose their leaves and can’t produce sugar, Douglas-fir trees may shuttle
them nutrients through the fungal network. And in the summer, when paper birch trees
have lots of leaves, they send sugars to young Douglas-fir saplings growing in their shadows. Plants can also warn each other of danger. Douglas-fir trees connected by a fungal network
can alert their ponderosa pine neighbors if they’re attacked by budworms. In response, the neighboring ponderosa pine
trees will produce insect-repelling chemicals—even though they haven’t been directly exposed
to the insects themselves. Mycorrhizal fungi can also enable parental
care of among plants. Some adult trees will help out their younger
relatives by sending those seedlings more nutrients through the fungal network than
they send to strangers. The adults may even make more room for them
in the soil by reducing the number of their own roots. But not everyone is so generous. Much like our internet, things can sometimes
get a little nasty on the Wood Wide Web. Take Black Walnut trees, for example. They can spread poison through the network,
hindering the growth of their neighbors. And the fungi making up the network can be
just as tricky. Mycorrhizal fungi tend to pick favorites. They may share resources with one species
of tree, but bleed another species dry without giving anything back in return. The fungi may also judge a plant’s health. If they think it’s too weak or sick, they
may not allow it to receive nutrients or danger signals from the network. Now, we’re only beginning to understand
how complex these relationships get. But imagine the possibilities for agriculture
and forestry. If we find out certain species share well
across the network, maybe we can plant them near each other to yield better harvests,
or grow healthier forests. So next time you’re walking through the
woods or the park don’t forget to thank the fungal web beneath your feet. Ew.

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