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Revealing The Fungus Among Us

Chantrelle or portabella are fungi we think about while ordering dinner, but this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fungi.

A pile of dirt against a white background

Photo: Mesaytsegaye (Wikimedia Commons)

A key to more sustainable agriculture may be found in the fungi inhabiting Earth's soils.

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.

Microbial Interactions

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

Historically, ecologists have focused on resource competition as a driver of plant communities and coexistence.

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.

Why Care?

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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Kim Elsenbroek

I am a trained scientist aspiring to communicate science to the general public. I received my B.S. in Botany from Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) in spring of 2012 and my M.S. from Indiana University Bloomington. I have conducted research in sustainability, ecological restoration, invasive species control and outreach/education. I have worked with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, McHenry County Conservations District, SIUC, IUB and now the Nature Conservancy.

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