Plants use underground networks to warn of enemy attack
10 May 2013
Plants use underground fungal networks to warn their neighbours of aphid attack, UK scientists have discovered. The study, published this week in Ecology Letters, is the first to reveal plants' ability to communicate underground in this way.
The research, funded by a NERC studentship with Rothamsted Research, changes our understanding of the ways in which living things interact with one another. If crops can be managed in a way that exploits this natural communication channel, it could provide a new weapon in the battle against insect pests.
Scientists from the University of Aberdeen, the James Hutton Institute and Rothamsted Research grew the bean plant (Vicia faba) in groups of five. They allowed three in each group to grow underground networks of mycelia - a thread-like fungus that grows from one set of roots to another. They kept the two remaining plants free of the fungal links.
They then infested one of the plants in each group with aphids, triggering the release of a suite of chemicals designed to repel aphids but attract wasps, one of the aphid's predators.
Remarkably, plants which were not under attack themselves, but which were connected to the victim by the underground fungal network, also began to produce the defensive chemical response. Unconnected plants didn't mount a chemical defence, so remained vulnerable to aphid attack.
Previous research had shown that plants could communicate chemically through the air, but the researchers covered the plants with bags to rule out above-ground signalling.
Dr David Johnson, of the University of Aberdeen, led the study. He says,"We knew that plants produce volatile chemicals when attacked, and we knew they communicate danger to each other above ground. Now we know that they communicate danger through these underground fungal networks as well. Connected plants that weren't infested by the aphids behaved as though they were. We don't quite know the mechanism, but it's likely to be a chemical signal."
"Our understanding of ecological systems has not considered the fact that plants are interconnected in this way. It could have major implications for our understanding of how one organism affects another," he adds.
The roots of virtually all groups of plants, including important food crops such as wheat, rice, maize and barley, are colonised by symbiotic fungi.
Another of the study's authors, Professor John Pickett of Rothamsted Research, an independent research institute strategically funded by the BBSRC, says, "Aphids affect all higher-latitude agricultural regions, including the UK, the EU, North America, and North East Asia. This research could provide a new, sustainable and natural intervention. In a field of plants that have some inducible resistance to aphids, we could use a plant that's susceptible to aphid attack to 'switch on' the defence mechanism through the natural underground connection. There's the potential to deal with other pests and diseases, in other regions, in a similar way."
NERC Press Office
Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411561
Mob: 07917 557215
NERC Press Office
Tel: 01793 411568
Researchers' contact details:
Dr David Johnson
University of Aberdeen
Tel: 01224 273857
Professor John Pickett
Tel: 01582 763133 x2321
1. The paper, 'Underground Signals carried through common mycelial networks warn neighbouring plants of aphid attack' (DOI: 10.1111/ele.12115), was published in Ecology Letters on 10 May 2013.
2. The research was funded by a NERC open CASE studentship (NE/G012008/1) with Rothamsted Research. Rothamsted Research is strategically funded by the BBSRC.
3. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK's main agency for funding and managing world-class research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. It coordinates some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, food security, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on earth, and much more. NERC receives around £300m a year from the government's science budget, which it uses to fund research and training in universities and its own research centres.
4. NERC CASE studentships promote collaboration between the research community and the end-users of research. They aim to achieve benefits for both the end-user and the student.
5. Rothamsted is an independent scientific research institute and the longest running agricultural research station in the world. Established in 1843 and strategically funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), we provide independent, cutting-edge scientific research to develop innovations that benefit our health, farming and the environment.
Press release: 05/13
Recent press news
- NERC invests in scheme to solve business problems using environmental data
- Science Budget allocations 2015-16
- NERC signs MoU with multinational energy company Shell
- NERC invests £4.6 million in Big Data
- Research on the effects of storm surges on sand dunes to aid coastal management
- Entrepreneurial scientists scoop prize money at competition finals
- NERC announces the winner of its first photo and essay competition
- NERC supports growth with responsible environmental management in energy sector
- Better modelling of tsunami zones could help insurance quotes
- NERC signs MoU with global engineering consultancy Arup