Though not well-known to those outside botany
exist as a critical part of
. These microorganisms
form a symbiotic association with many plants,
allowing the plants access to more nutrients
than they could obtain from the soil directly.
In poor soil conditions, this can mean the
difference between a plant surviving or dying.
Additionally, the network they grow binds soil
particles together, significantly slowing the
effects of erosion
Before getting into the topic, a brief clarification
of terminology may aid the reader:
"Mycorrhizal fungi" or, plural, "Mycorrhizae",
refers to a colony of individual fungal cells,
similar to a mushroom
(though not for
reproductive purposes). It does not refer to
a particular species, but rather, to the
particular relationship these organisms have
with a plant.
"Hyphae" refers to individual fungal cells, in
the form of thread-like filaments that tangle
together in a larger multicellular mass (ie,
Conceptually, mycorrhizal fungi act like an extremely
fine terminal branching of the plant's own root
systems, producing a microscopic web between and around
each individual soil particle.
The peripheral hyphae
, called the soil network
nutrients from the soil itself and
from decaying organic
matter in the soil, including
larger objects such as dead insect
s. These nutrients
travel through channels between individual hyphae to
, a small but visible fungal coating
around the roots of the plant. Finally, numerous
hyphae interface with the root cells themselves,
in structures called a Hartig
the mycorrhizae transfer inorganic nutrients to
a plant, and in return, the plant provides the
mycorrhizae with carbon in the form of simple
sugars, benefitting both the plant and the fungus.
According to Michael Miller, a US Department of Energy
senior soil scientist
, "90 percent of the world's
s belong to families that have
associations with mycorrhizal fungi".