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Mycorrhizal Fungi: Plant Partner Extraordinaire

Updated: Jul 10

Fungal Hyphae show up as thin black lines on a glowing green tree root under epi-florescence microscopy
Fungal hyphae on a tree root under epi-fluorescence microscopy

The term "mycorrhiza" is from ancient Greek meaning "fungus root", these are specialized fungi who form symbiotic relationships with plant roots. Mycorrhizal fungi are divided into two main categories, endo- (inside) and ecto- (outside) mycorrhiza. Glomeromycota is a unique and ancient phylum of fungi, renowned for forming arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) associations with the roots of the majority of terrestrial plants, these are the endomycorrhizal fungi that growers can benefit from promoting. Ectomycorrhizal fungi for associations with trees and shrubs. These plant symbiotic fungi are essential for plant health and ecosystem stability, making them a vital component of the natural world.


Characteristics of Mycorrhizal Fungi

Endomycorrhizal fungi are characterized by their formation of arbuscules, which are tree-like structures that penetrate plant root cells. These structures facilitate the exchange of nutrients between the fungus and the plant. They produce large, thick-walled spores that can survive in soil for extended periods, ensuring their persistence and spread across various environments. While ectomycorrhiza form sheaths around the roots of trees, and exend the root network by 100 ft or more.


Symbiotic Relationships

In the symbiotic relationship, mycorrhizal fungi enhance the plant's ability to absorb essential nutrients, particularly phosphorus, from the soil. In return, the plant provides the fungi with carbohydrates produced through photosynthesis. This mutualistic interaction significantly boosts plant growth and resilience (from pathogens and drought), especially in nutrient-poor soils.


Ecological Importance

Mycorrhizal fungi contribute to soil structure by binding soil particles together, improving water retention and reducing erosion. Their hyphal networks enhance soil aeration and nutrient distribution. By forming associations with a wide range of plant species, mycorrhizal fungi support plant diversity and ecosystem stability. They enable plants to colonize challenging environments, thus promoting biodiversity. These fungi play a role in carbon sequestration by facilitating the storage of carbon in the soil (between 30-50% of all carbon in the soil), which helps mitigate climate change.


Human Applications

The use of endomycorrhizal fungi-based inoculants in agriculture can improve crop yields and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. These fungi enhance soil fertility and plant health, contributing to sustainable farming practices. Ectomycorrhizal fungi are also utilized in reforestation projects and the rehabilitation of degraded lands. Their ability to improve soil quality and support plant growth makes them valuable in ecological restoration efforts.


Use (and Abuse) of Mycorrhizal Fungi

Modern agricultural practices, such as excessive tilling and the use of fungicides, can disrupt mycorrhizal fungi populations. Conservation efforts focus on promoting practices that support these beneficial fungi, and the use of inoculants to restore fungal communities. Scientists are exploring the genetic and ecological aspects of mycorrhizal fungi to better understand their role in ecosystems and enhance their application in sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation.


Conclusion

Mycorrhizal fungi are indispensable allies in the plant kingdom, forming symbiotic relationships that enhance plant growth, soil health, and ecosystem stability. Their ancient and intricate partnerships with plants highlight the complexity and interdependence of life on Earth. By recognizing and harnessing the power of mycorrhizal fungi, we can foster more sustainable and resilient agricultural practices and ecosystems.

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