Scientists are discovering incredible interactions between plants' roots and soil dwelling fungi called mycorrhizal fungi. These relationships are integral to how plants function, including of course, our crops. But despite their importance to fundamental aspects of plant development, there's still so much we have yet to learn.
"We know, for example, that the fungi, when it colonizes the root system, it can actually change the gene regulation of the plant, such that the plant is no longer able to access nutrients directly from its root system. It kind of creates an addiction onto the fungi that makes it so the plant is giving more carbon to get at the nutrients."
That's Dr. Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist who studies these mycorrhizal fungi. She shares why this work is so important for biodiversity, for crop development, for soil health and for carbon sequestration.
"We did some research that found that about 13 billion tons of CO2 are allocated every year from plants to mycorrhizal networks across the earth, so that that includes all kinds of mycorrhizal fungi, also associated with forests. But that's a huge number, right? That's equivalent to one third of the emissions from fossil fuels."
The functions and strategies that these fungi perform in nature will blow your mind, and I can't help but wonder about the possibilities for the future of agriculture.
Professor Toby Kiers is an evolutionary biologist who earned her PhD from UC Davis. She has been Professor and University Research Chair of Evolutionary Biology at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam since 2014. Kiers is famous for uncovering ancient biological markets that take place beneath forest floors, in which different trees and fungi barter for essential resources such as phosphorus and sugar. Kiers co-founded the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN).