Powering Up the Plant Kingdom: Fungi Critical to Plant Success

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Love diverse plant life? Thank the fungi. Image Credit: sueanna

There are protein shakes, body-building programs, and supplements galore – for people who are looking to shape themselves into a stronger, tougher individual, there are many options available. But what about plants? They can’t bench press a few pounds more every day, or scarf down a protein shake to bulk up. However, they can and do work with other organisms in their environment to get nutrients that enhance their growth. A new study from the University of Sheffield takes us back hundreds of millions of years and shows how growing new, sturdy roots gave plants a nutritional boost.

Head and Shoulders, Roots and Stems

If you’re asked to describe a plant, you’ll probably start at the bottom: roots, stem, leaves, flowers, and seeds. But not all plants fit the mold. Ancient plants like ferns and moss have spores instead of seeds. Other plants are even more ancient, and they look very different from the plants of today. The old-fashioned liverwort doesn’t even need roots to survive. Liverworts are similar to the first land plants – they have no roots or leaves, and do not make flowers or seeds.

Changes in the Atmosphere Changed Ancient Soils and Plants

Let’s go back a few years: say, 400 million years or so. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the atmosphere was changing.  Carbon dioxide was present in a much higher concentrations than it is today, but it was gradually beginning to decrease. As carbon dioxide levels decreased, this helped boost the populations of soil fungi.

As the soil changed, the plants changed with it – 385 to 400 million years ago, plants called clubmosses began to evolve.  These plants were different from the rootless plants that came before them. They had roots that allowed them to develop a relationship with soil fungi, and ultimately, this relationship would enable rooted plants to become more dominant in the global picture.

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