Buddies in Bad Times: Mycorrhizae Play an Important Role in Helping Plants Adapt to a Changing Climate

By English, Heather | Alternatives Journal, September-October 2009 | Go to article overview

Buddies in Bad Times: Mycorrhizae Play an Important Role in Helping Plants Adapt to a Changing Climate


English, Heather, Alternatives Journal


IMAGINE THE PULSES of biological discovery as a neural net. The neurons are hubs, fields of study, connected in a tangled and ever-changing web of knowledge. Every so often, a field of inquiry undergoes a burst of discovery, expanding the web. Today, the field of mycorrhizal research is characterized by such a pulse.

Mycorrhizae are microscopic fungi that colonize plant roots, making nutrients available to their host in exchange for carbohydrates synthesized by the plant. They have remained mysterious to scientists for many years, though recent studies have begun to provide new-found revelations about their evolutionary relationships, ecology and reproduction.

When mycorrhizae colonize plant roots, they form nodules and fan out through the soil. According to Tony Trofymow, a soil scientist with the Pacific Forestry Centre in BC, "Mycorrhizae can act as extensions of the root systems to take up nitrogen in the form of ammonium." It has also been shown that mycorrhizae can help plants deal with drought and other adverse conditions. This ability is thought to have given vascular plants the competitive advantage they needed to adapt to conditions all over the globe. Today, scientists are learning that the fungi may once again help nature deal with the challenges of a changing environment.

By improving tree growth, mycorrhizae enhance carbon sequestration, thereby helping to counter the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to Shannon Berch, a forest soils ecologist with the BC government, "The biggest role mycorrhizae play is facilitating sequestration [of carbon] into plant material and then into soil."

The assistance provided by mycorrhizae could help plant communities adapt to shifting climates, but only if these miniscule fungi are available. As the Earth warms, plant species are expected to migrate to areas with climatic conditions that are suited to their survival. With this change in range, Berch wonders, "... will the mycorrhizae arrive at the same time?" She recognizes that assisting the migration of soil organisms so that they are available to migrating plants may only be possible on a small scale. …

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