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Brain Food: An Ancient Fungus that Helps Plants Around the World


A fungus that’s been around for more than 400 million years is showing up in the roots of trees and grasses all over the world and helping plants grow. In a global study, Northern Arizona University Ecologist Nancy Johnson contributed samples of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi from the Serengeti. She says the findings are surprising.

“You could imagine if you’d find all the same animals here and in Africa and in Australia and in Europe. We have very different animal species and very different plant species, but in this case, this ancient group of fungus at the virtual taxa level of the molecular analyses and even the spore analysis suggest that these fungi are pretty much everywhere,” Johnson says.

Johnson believes wind, water and even animals like birds may be responsible for carrying the spores to different continents. The fungi are so prevalent, they’ve developed a mutually beneficial relationship with 80 percent of all plants, from the deserts to the rain forests.

Credit Courtesy
Johnson working in the Serengeti

“You look at roots and you think, whoa they look very fibrous, and thin but if you can consider the fungus that extends out into the soil, the fungus is even finer. You can’t see it with your naked eye. They’re thinner than threads. And so you can imagine how you have these really micro threads that are extending from the roots into the soil and harvesting nutrients out of the soil, and it’s very important, especially in nutrient poor environments, to have this symbiosis,” Johnson says.

Johnson says understanding the relationship between plants and fungi could help farmers naturally grow agricultural crops. This, she says, could decrease the need for inorganic fertilizer and keep chemicals out of the environment.

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