Everyone who has been to a forest has seen specific fungi growing on trees. Although we may consider them to be a parasite, they belong to ecosystem and in some cases benefit the trees. Now scientists from University of Zurich conducted a study that shows how trees make fungal partners to behave fairly.
It turns out a tree can sense which fungi cooperate less and provide them with fewer nutrients, thus effectively forcing them to cooperate. Scientists say that this behaviour is primarily economical and plants could also be used to test market and behavioural theories. In short, a plant needs phosphates from fungus, because it allows it to grow better, and pays for it with carbohydrates.
Results of the research are more than impressive. Scientists for the first time proved that plants, such as trees, recognize which fungus are less cooperative, providing fewer phosphates per unit of carbohydrate supplied, and which are more cooperative. And then it can give less nutrition to more selfish fungus or even starve it till it starts supplying more of the desired phosphates.
Scientists say that such behaviour has a lot in common with market economy, saying that plants take advantage of competiveness between separate fungus triggering a market-based process determined by cost and performance. This makes scientists think that plants are actually suitable objects to study and test general market-based theories.
Bernhard Schmid, one of the authors of the study, said: “Because plants make their decisions based on physiological processes and are not distracted from the best course of action by subjective thought, they could even be better models than animals and people”.
However, results of this research may have more realistic implications as well. For example, because some fungus, such as mycorrhizal fungi, are used in agriculture and gardening, it is important to understand how they are provided with nutrition and supply necessary compounds to plants.