This Underground Economy Exists in a Secret Fungi Kingdom

New research has revealed that fungi—you
know, like mushrooms—barter and trade with other organisms like little stockbrokers. Basically, there’s a whole economy of nutrients
right beneath our feet that we are just uncovering. And yes, it can be pronounced either fun-guy or fun-gee, don’t even start, and their classification has been difficult, to say
the least. They’re eerily more genetically similar
to animals than they are to plants or bacteria. And things only get weirder from there. Fungi are possibly the most widely distributed
organisms on Earth, existing everywhere on Earth from the North to South Pole. They take elements like carbon that are trapped
in organic matter, and through decomposition, they process and release those elements back into the ecosystem for other organisms to use. They can do this by releasing a sophisticated
cocktail of enzymes and other helpful chemicals that allow them to break down organic material
outside of their bodies, so that they can more easily digest the nutrients. This is how fungi cause
decay. But they don’t just play an essential role
as nutrient cyclers. See, all living things need phosphorus and
nitrogen to live, but not a lot of those elements exist in forms that are ready for uptake. We eat plants and other things that eat plants
to get enough of our phosphorous and nitrogen, but where do the plants get it? That’s right: microbes, like bacteria and
fungi. Fungi that work with plants in this way can
grow into structures called hyphae: delicate thread-like tendrils that can push into a plants’
roots. This forms mycorrhizae—symbiotic relationships
between fungi and the plants they glom on to. And for the record, mycorrhizae refers
both to the kind of fungi that do this and the relationship between a fungus and a plant’s
roots, so it’s a dual-purpose word. Mycorrhizae can also connect to each other
to form incredibly dense, expansive, and interconnected networks. Some estimates say there’s around 200 meters
of mycorrhizal hyphae in just one gram of typical forest soil. I mean are you kidding me? But plants bring something to the table, too. They have an ability that fungi do not—they
can form carbohydrates through photosynthesis. So in exchange for essential nutrients, plants
provide fungi with those tasty, tasty sugars. This worldwide network of nutrient exchange
includes all kinds of microbes, like these fungi and bacteria that play a similar role,
and as a whole, this system has come to be known as the Wood Wide Web. And we’re not even to the coolest part yet! New research details just how these nutrient
exchanges between plants and fungi actually work. It’s like zooming in on a business contract. We thought we knew what it said but then we
took a closer look at the fine print and woa boy is it more complicated than we imagined. A research team in Amsterdam recently found
that these nutrient exchanges may operate almost like an economy. When the plants have more sugars to share,
the fungi give more phosphorus in return, and vice versa. Both parties can ‘punish’ or ‘reward’
each other for good exchange rates. They can even withhold a store of a nutrient
until the other party has a better ‘offer’. Building on the results of this work, the
team wanted to go even further. They tagged each of the molecules in question
with a fluorescent compound, and then tracked the tagged molecules using a powerful confocal
microscope. This allowed them to quantify the nutrient
transfer from the fungi to the plant root and, for the first time ever, actually see
the transfer of nutrients. They then began to study flow patterns within
the fungus, making videos of the complex patterns of movement—you can actually see here that
the fungus stops the flow of nutrients in one direction and reverses it, sending them
back the other way. The scientists think this is our first look
into how fungi can redirect nutrients in response to their environment. It could even be that these oscillations of
molecules represent some kind of communication—could this be how these complex fungal networks transmit information? A new paper from a separate team used a database
of over a million samples to visualize fungal relationships with their respective plants,
revealing distinct patterns in biogeography: that means that certain areas of the world
have a particular ecosystem type that supports specific plant-fungus interactions. This is a more macro look at the role fungi
play in ecosystems that are defined by their local climates. Research into the complex kingdom of fungi
could help us better understand how organisms all over the world—both fungi and their
business partners—have evolved and survived over millennia. If we pair this nano-scale look at the transfer of nutrients with a larger, more ecosystem-level dynamic we can better understand how these relationships might change as the climate becomes more unpredictable, and what that might mean for the plants that
we rely on as we look into the future. Do you want even more on the mind-blowing facts
we’re discovering about the microbial life on our planet? Check out this video here, and make sure you
subscribe to Seeker to keep up with all your fungal news, it just might grow on you. And as always, thanks for watching, and I’ll
see you next time.


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