While we may not think much about it, fungi play a huge behind-the-scenes role in our lives, interacting underground with the grain, cereal and other crops we eat nearly every day.
Jim Bever, researcher at Indiana University Bloomington, began studying plant microbial interactions while working on his PhD at Duke University in 1987. The research conducted at his lab helps us understand these hidden plant-fungal associations and informs cropland management.
When asked why he entered this field, Bever responded, “I thought it was understudied and there were possible important interactions between plants and soil microbes that were not being appreciated in conventional plant ecology. I thought there were interesting unexplored questions of plant microbe interactions and how they could affect plant populations and plant community dynamics”
A New Paradigm
Oftentimes, plants will accumulate deleterious soil fungi that reduce its strength in competition, allowing several plants to coexist without any one taking over.
However, there are also beneficial fungi that can be beneficial for some plant species. In reality, then, it is the interactions between helpful and harmful soil organisms, along with the way they associate with plants, that determine the shape of plant communities.
Modern agriculture tends to degrade microbial communities. The microbial interactions studied by the Bever lab are the same interactions that force farmers to rotate their crops from year to year and make it difficult to have a weed-free lawn.
If there is a year of low yield for a cornfield, for example, it is likely due to a buildup soil microbes in the field.
Understanding these plant microbial interactions on an intimate level may allow us to form and implement better management strategies for lawn and agricultural fields, while at the same time reducing our use of chemicals.
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