Magazine article Science News

Secret Agent: Hidden Helper Lets Fungus Save Plants from Heat

Magazine article Science News

Secret Agent: Hidden Helper Lets Fungus Save Plants from Heat

Article excerpt

The story of a fungus that keeps plants from withering in hot soil turns out to have been missing a character--the virus that makes it all work.

The fungus Curvularia protuberata grows inside plant tissues without damaging them. In 2002, researchers working in Yellowstone National Park reported that grass colonized by the fungus thrived in soils that simmer at over 40[degrees]C (104[degrees]F) all summer.

A closer look now shows that the fungus alone doesn't protect plants from heat, says virologist Marilyn Roossinck of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla. The fungus itself has to be infected with a previously unknown agent, which she and her colleagues have named Curvularia thermal-tolerance virus, the group reports in the Jan. 26 Science.

Researchers haven't found many three-partner mutual-benefit societies, and this is the first plant-fungus collaboration known to have a virus as a third party, Roossinck says. She speculates that new ways to protect crops from heat might eventually result from understanding this threesome.

"I would hope that it changes people's thinking about viruses," Roossinck says. Scientists have primarily chosen to study viruses that cause disease, but she says that she suspects that most viruses don't have ill effects on their hosts. "There's a huge world out there that hasn't been looked at" she says.

Researchers discovered the original grass-fungus arrangement in a species of what's called panic grass, Dichanthelium lanuginosum.

While working on a different project in 2003, Roossinck looked through the Yellowstone Curvularia samples. …

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