Plant-fungi duo turned Earth green

U. SHEFFIELD (UK) — New evidence suggests an ancient plant group worked together with soil-dwelling fungi to “green” the Earth in the early Paleozoic era, nearly half a billion years ago.

Scientists have long-suspected that soil fungi formed mutually beneficial relationships with early land plants to play an essential role in assisting their initial colonization of terrestrial environments.

However, until now there has been a lack of evidence demonstrating if and how the earliest ancient land plants, from the early Paleozoic era (over 470 million years ago), might have cooperated with fungi for mutual benefit.

Researchers studied a thalloid liverwort plant, which is a member of the most ancient group of land plants that still exists and still shares many of the original features of its ancestors. They report their findings in Nature Communications.

“By studying these ancient plants we open a window on the past to investigate how the earliest land plants evolved,” says David Beerling, a professor in the animal and plant sciences department at the University of Sheffield. “Our results support the idea that the ‘greening’ of the Earth was promoted by a symbiosis between plants and fungi.

“It shows that plants didn’t get a toe-hold on land without teaming up with fungi—this has long been suspected, but until now not investigated. It will require us to think again about the crucial role of cooperation between organisms that drove fundamental changes in the ecology of our planet.”

They used controlled-environment growth rooms to simulate a CO2-rich atmosphere, similar to that of the Paleozoic era when these plants originated. This environment significantly amplified the benefits of the fungi for the plant’s growth and so favored the early formation of the association between the plant and its fungal partner.

The team found that when the thalloid liverwort was colonized by the fungi, it significantly enhanced photosynthetic carbon uptake, growth, and asexual reproduction—factors that had a beneficial impact on plant fitness.

The plants grow and reproduce better when colonized by symbiotic fungi because the fungi provide essential soil nutrients. In return, the fungi also benefit by receiving carbon from the plants. The research found that each plant was supporting fungi that had an area of 1 to 2 times that of a tennis court.

“Fungi are present in every type of habitat throughout the world and are essential for many plants to grow. It is exciting that we are now beginning to discover the fungi associated with ‘lower’ plants, and that many more still remain to be investigated,” says Martin Bidartondo from the Jodrell Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Sydney also collaborated on the work.

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