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Inner Workings: Special relationship between fungi and plants may have spurred changes to ancient climate

  1. Amber Dance, Science Writer

Look at a plant, and you’re probably also looking at a fungus. More than 80% of land plants partner with fungi to help those plants extract nutrients—nitrogen and phosphorus—from the ground (1, 2). The plants return the favor with carbon from their photosynthesis. Biologists suspect that this partnership was a major factor in allowing plants to move from water to land about 470 million years ago. But exactly how the partnership arose remains a mystery.

Only recently have experiments shown that modern analogs of those plants and fungi indeed trade carbon for nutrients. Researchers are also finding that fungal partners are more diverse than expected. Partners differ in how much soil nutrients they offer up in return for carbon. And while some partnerships thrive in the modern atmosphere, others do best at the higher carbon dioxide levels. These findings could therefore help shape our picture of the ancient atmosphere and possibly the future climate.

Carbon for Phosphorus

For decades, researchers assumed that early land plants partnered with the same fungi they see most often in modern plants, now known as Glomeromycotina. “We call them ‘gloms,’” explains Katie Field, a plant physiologist at the University of Leeds in the U.K.

The fungus forms branched, tree-like structures within plant cells and sends out fibers that break up soils and suck out nutrients. This ability likely allowed early plants, which lacked their own roots, to colonize the land (3). Fossils of some of the earliest land plants have similar-looking fungi in close association, and to this day, gloms continue to associate with plants. …

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