Fungal activation of drought tolerance
Fungal spores kick-start plant metabolism to cope with environmental stresses
A New Scientist report tells how researchers sprayed of D. lanuginosum endophytes (fungal spores) onto wheat seeds that normally grow at temperatures up to 38 degrees C. and how the spores somehow enabled the wheat to grow at 70 degrees C, with a fifty per cent reduction in water requirement. Trials suggest that different microbiomes can confer tolerance of a variety of environmental stresses to a number of crops.
Genetic engineering of plants for drought-tolerance works by switching on metabolic pathways one at a time (a lengthy and expensive procedure, which is controversial and has attendant environmental concerns), but fungi can activate them simultaneously as part of a natural process.
Researchers Jerry Barrow and Mary Lucero, of New Mexico State University, transferred endophytic fungi and bacteria from drought-tolerant desert plants Atriplex canescens and Bouteloua eriopoda to vegetables and fodder grasses, producing increased yields in all of them (USDA Forest Service Proceedings, 2008, p 83).
Significantly, the researchers also suspect that there could be an even simpler way to achieve such increases and stress coping levels in plants. Instead of isolating specific types of fungi, they think it could be more effective to use mulched plant root material from species exhibiting the desired tolerance for drought etc. and to grow crops in this – thus utilizing a whole spectrum of fungal and microbial resource in the mulch. This could be a fast and non-technical way to boost tolerance for changing conditions as weather patterns alter and coastal incursions salinate soils. It provides a viable natural alternative to genetic modification, and could possibly be used by farmers and growers without expensive production of specially treated seed or sprays.
New Scientist article (abstract):