CAMBRIDGE, England, May 4 (UPI) -- Scientists have found that an interaction between a common soil fungi and crop roots spurs root growth, enabling plants to absorb additional nutrients. The discovery could help researchers develop new bio-fertilizers.
In a new study, exploring the relationship between rice plants and the mycorrhizal fungus, researchers found that the fungi not only encouraged root growth but also delivered phosphorous directly.
The mycorrhizal fungus, which integrates itself into the plant root at the cellular level, extends tendrils called hyphae into the surrounding soil. These tendrils funnel phosphorous and other nutrients directly into the plant cells.
The recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge, suggested plant colonized by the fungus received between 70 to 100 percent of their phosphorous from the fungi tendrils.
"The big question we are trying to answer is whether and how we can make use of the biofertilizer capacity of mycorrhizal symbiosis in modern and more high input agricultural settings, meaning more intensive farming methods," Dr. Uta Paszkowski, a plant scientist at Cambridge, said in a press release. "We need alternatives to phosphate fertilizer if we are to feed growing populations."
Paszkowski and his colleagues found that fungi-inhabited plant roots express different genes than their fungi-less peers. The cell walls of the plants main vertical roots soften, allowing additional horizontal growth.
"Plant roots that have the capacity to explore the widest soil area absorb the most nutrients as a consequence and so are likely to have a greater crop yield," Paszkowski said.
There is only a finite supply of agriculture's chief fertilizer, phosphorous, and it is running low. Researchers say developing suitable replacements -- especially for crops like rice, wheat and other cereal grains, which feed large portions of the world's population -- is vital.
"By finding out which parts of the genome are responsible for the best plant root systems we can start breeding for the best root 'architecture'," added Paszkowski. "Designer crops with the best possible root systems will mean greater crop yield, which means more people fed."
The new research is published in the journal PNAS.