Powering Up the Plant Kingdom: Fungi Critical to Plant Success


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Plants and Fungi Help Each Other Grow

How does the fungi-plant relationship work?

Fungi move phosphorus to plants.

Phosphorus helps the plants grow.

Plants move sugars to the fungi.

It’s a mutually-beneficial relationship that has only recently garnered a lot of attention in the public sphere. We’ve slowly come to realize that soil is not just the brown stuff that holds the plants up; soil is a rich, vital ecosystem that contains billions of organisms that facilitate plant growth.

Study Traces Plant Success

Ferns in Growth Chambers. Image Credit: Dr. Katie Field

In a study at the University of Sheffield, Dr Katie Field and her colleagues tracked the evolution of this relationship by placing different types of plants in growth chambers infused with fungi. They placed liverworts, ferns, and a flowering plant into poor soil that was rich in fungi and tracked the movement of phosphorus into the plants. They also tracked the movement of sugars into the fungi.

What the study found was that as plants evolved roots, this allowed plants to benefit even more from soil nutrients, as fungi could move phosphorus to the plants. Dr. Field told Decoded Science that as plants grew stems and leaves, they became even more successful, since they “proved to be much more efficient at harnessing sunlight, CO2 and moving essential water, nutrients and sugars around within their tissues.”

Essentially, fungi helped provide the kick that plants needed to move to the next level of evolution and dominance. They facilitated plant growth, spread, and diversity, yielding the wonderful ecosystems that we have on earth today. This study highlights the fact that the earth’s atmosphere, soil, and plants are connected in ways that we do not completely understand, and that miniature ecologies play a vital role in supporting the larger ecosystems that we see around us.


Field, K.J., Cameron, D.D., Leake, J.R., Tille, S., Bidartondo, M.I. and Beerling, D.J. Contrasting arbuscular mycorrhizal responses of vascular and non-vascular plants to a simulated Palaeozoic CO2 decline. (2012). Nature Communications. 3:835 doi: 10.1038/ncomms1831. Accessed May 17, 2012.

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