Fungal network helps plants communicate

It’s like playing telephone, but more science-y.

Researchers have found plants use an underground network of fungi to warn each other of attacks by aphids, small insects that feed on and can destroy plants, according to phys.org. The research was published in Ecology Letters and was conducted by researchers at the University of Aberdeen and Rothamsted Research.

Below ground, most plants are connected by thread-like fungi called mycorrhizae. Researchers grew bean plants in groups of five then let three in each group grow mycorrihizal mycelia. The remaining two plants in each group were kept fungi-free, according to the University of Aberdeen.

Researchers then released aphids on one plant in each group. The plants responded by releasing chemicals to call in the troops – that is, to repel aphids and attract wasps that feed on the tiny bugs. Researchers found plants that weren’t infested but connected to the aphid-besieged plant by fungi also began producing these chemicals. Conversely, plants that weren’t connected via the network didn’t produce the aphid-repelling chemicals.

This is the first time a study has shown the link between the underground fungal network and plant communication. Previous studies have demonstrated how plants can communicate through the air.

Besides the obvious cool factor, this research has an extremely valuable upshot – if this underground fungal communication network can be leveraged with crops, for example, it would provide an innovative new tool in warding off destructive pests, the statement notes.

“Aphids affect all higher-latitude agricultural regions, including the (United Kingdom), the (European Union), North America, and North East Asia. This research could provide a new, sustainable and natural intervention,” said Prof. John Pickett of Rothamsted Research, in a statement. “In a field of plants that have some inducible resistance to aphids, we could use a plant that’s susceptible to aphid attack to ‘switch on’ the defense mechanism through the natural underground connection. There’s the potential to deal with other pests and diseases, in other regions, in a similar way.”

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