Key factors behind the ability of trees to generate large amounts of biomass or manage carbon reside in the way they interact with certain symbiotic fungi, which excel at procuring necessary but scarce nutrients, such as phosphate and nitrogen. This fungus, called mycorrhizal fungus, besides forming a beneficial symbiosis with trees, inhabits one of the most ecologically and commercially important microbial niches in North American and Eurasian forests.
When Laccaria bicolor partners with plant roots, a mycorrhizal root is created, resulting in a relationship that benefits both organisms. The fungus within the root is protected from competition with other soil microbes and gains preferential access to the plant's carbon source.
Such mycorrhizae are critical to terrestrial ecosystems: about 85 percent of all plant species, including trees, are dependent on such interactions to thrive. Mycorrhizae are estimated to fix more carbon than the entire worldwide chemical fertilizer industry.
An international consortium of institutions has now deciphered its genetic code. Dr. Gopi Podila, chairman of Biological Sciences Department from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, was co-coordinator for the first mycorrhizal fungal genome project.
"The study and management of such relationships holds immense potential for the agriculture, forestry and horticulture industries, as well as far-reaching implications for land management policies and the impact of global climate change on plants," said Podila.