Trees talk and share resources right under our feet, using a fungal network nicknamed the Wood Wide Web. Some plants use the system to support their offspring, while others hijack it to sabotage their rivals.
GARDENERS, keep an eye on your tomato plants. There’s no knowing what they are plotting underground. Some 80 per cent of plants are colonised by fungi that form the familiar network of fine white threads that hang off many roots. The threads, called mycorrhizae, take in water and minerals from the soil, and hand some over to the plant in exchange for nutrients. Now it seems plants use them to communicate too.
Ren Sen Zeng and colleagues at South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, grew pairs of tomato plants in pots. The team allowed some pairs to form mycorrhizal networks between their roots. Plants connected this way can exchange nutrients and water, staving off the effects of drought. But Zeng wanted to know if the networks had any other function
The team sprayed one plant in each pair with Alternaria solani, a fungus which causes early blight. Sixty-five hours later, they infected the second plant and observed how well it coped.
Plants sharing a mycorrhizal network were less likely to develop the blight, and when they did, symptoms were milder. They were also more likely to activate defensive genes and enzymes (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013324)
The first plant was signalling to its neighbour, Zeng says, and he has dubbed mycorrhizae “the internet of plant communities”.
Although nobody knows how they pass signals, the networks could be more reliable and efficient than other plant-to-plant signalling systems. These include chemicals released into the air to warn neighbours of impending attacks – which Zeng blocked by encasing the tomato plants in airtight bags. Airborne signals are slow and depend on the weather. Roots can also release chemicals, though these do not travel far; “Tomato plants talking over ‘the internet of plant communities’ were less likely to succumb to blight”
“The research is a milestone in our understanding of communication between plants,” says Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She points out that intensively farmed plants don’t have mycorrhizae. With access to ample fertiliser and water they do not bother to grow them. As a result, they may be missing out on health benefits.
Together with Dan Durall of the University of British Columbia in Kelowna, Simard has shown that mycorrhizal networks can be enormous. Last year they found a network weaving its way through an entire Canadian forest, with each tree connected to dozens of its neighbours over distances of 30 metres (New Phytologist, vol 185, p 543).
“It’s a very robust system that could allow for the movement of signal proteins over many metres,” Durall says. Mycorrhizal networks even tie together plants of different species, which means different species might be able to communicate with each other.
Durall cautions that nobody has looked for Zeng’s kind of communication outside the lab. But if the signalling system works as well in the messy real world as it did in the lab then many plants could well be chatting away beneath our feet. By Michael Marshall, Newscientist.com
The Wood Wide Web: How trees secretly talk to and share with each other
This BBC News video explains. Plus, from The New Yorker:
“The relationship between these mycorrhizal fungi and the plants they connect is now known to be ancient (around four hundred and fifty million years old) and largely one of mutualism—a subset of symbiosis in which both organisms benefit from their association. In the case of the mycorrhizae, the fungi siphon off food from the trees, taking some of the carbon-rich sugar that they produce during photosynthesis. The plants, in turn, obtain nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen that the fungi have acquired from the soil, by means of enzymes that the trees do not possess… The revelation of the Wood Wide Web’s existence, and the increased understanding of its functions, raises big questions—about where species begin and end; about whether a forest might be better imagined as a single superorganism, rather than a grouping of independent individualistic ones; and about what trading, sharing, or even friendship might mean among plants.”
Trees secretly talk to each other underground. They’re passing information and resources to and from each other through a network of mycorrhizal fungi—mykós means fungus and riza means root in Greek—a mat of long, thin filaments that connect an estimated 90% of land plants. Scientists call the fungi the Wood Wide Web because ‘adult’ trees can share sugars to younger trees, sick trees can send their remaining resources back into the network for others, and they can communicate with each other about dangers like insect infestations. –
Sequencing the Fungi of the Ecuadorian Andes
“The big trees were subsidizing the young ones through the fungal networks. Without this helping hand, most of the seedlings wouldn’t make it.” Suzanne Simard.
How trees talk to each other | Suzanne Simard
“A forest is much more than what you see,” says ecologist Suzanne Simard. Her 30 years of research in Canadian forests have led to an astounding discovery — trees talk, often and over vast distances. Learn more about the harmonious yet complicated social lives of trees and prepare to see the natural world with new eyes.
Suzanne Simard studies the complex, symbiotic networks in our forests. Why you should listen…
A professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences in Vancouver, Suzanne Simard studies the surprising and delicate complexity in nature. Her main focus is on the below-ground fungal networks that connect trees and facilitate underground inter-tree communication and interaction. Her team’s analysis revealed that the fungi networks move water, carbon and nutrients such as nitrogen between and among trees as well as across species. The research has demonstrated that these complex, symbiotic networks in our forests — at the hub of which stand what she calls the “mother trees” — mimic our own neural and social networks. This groundbreaking work on symbiotic plant communication has far-reaching implications in both the forestry and agricultural industries, in particular concerning sustainable stewardship of forests and the plant’s resistance to pathogens. She works primarily in forests, but also grasslands, wetlands, tundra and alpine ecosystems.
“A forest is a co-operative system…We need to understand deeper, more viscerally, what’s going on in trees, these living creatures”. Suzanne Simard.
Learn about the sophisticated, underground, fungal network trees use to communicate and even share nutrients. UBC professor Suzanne Simard leads us through the forrest to investigate this underground community.
What we think we know, is that there’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees. Like the synapses between neurons. Dr. Grace Augustine, fictional character in “Avatar”
Natrional Geographic Explorer Correspondent Albert Lin goes out into the forest with Dr. Suzanne Simard to learn a little more about how trees communicate.
Of Forests and Men, Narrated by Edward Norton – International Year of Forests 2011
Yann Arthus-Bertrand is an environmentalist, activist, journalist and photographer. He has also directed films about the impact of humans on the planet. He is especially well known for his book Earth from Above (1999) and his films HOME (2009) and HUMAN VOL.1 (2015). Yann Arthus-Bertrand was appointed by the United Nations 2011 to produce the official film for the International Year of Forests. Following the success of HOME which was seen by 400 million people, the photographer began producing a short 7-minute film on forests made up of aerial images from Home and the Vu du Ciel television programmes.
This film will be shown during a plenary session of the Ninth Session of United Nations Forum on Forests (24 January – 4 February 2011) in New York.
United Nations, New York, 2 February 2011 – Video message by Edward Norton, two-time Academy Award-nominated actor, and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for biodiversity on the occasion of the global launch of the International Year of Forests 2011. The global launch of the International Year of Forests 2011 has been held in conjunction with the High-Level Segment of the ninth session of the United Nations Forum on Forests. The launch of Forests 2011 featured a programme of high level speakers, the premiere of the short film “FOREST” directed by Mr. Yann Arthus-Bertrand, and film clips from the winning entries of the International Forest Film Festival.