As it so happens, Mother Nature is all about teamwork and cooperation, as evidenced by the ecological systems that involve plants, bacteria, and fungi in the process of cleaning land that’s been polluted. A new study indicates that super involved engagement between bacteria, fungi, and the roots of certain trees constitute the driving force that empowers those trees to clean land based on the findings of several plant-biology and bioinformatics researchers at McGill University and Université de Montréal. In that same spirit, other experts are also looking for you to help them learn as much as they can about how really small plants react to climate change in much the same way that Illinois teenager Kalman Strauss has.
There’s now new evidence implying that willow trees, for example, are able to put up with pollution by contributing sugars to symbiotic fungi in the vicinity of their roots, and those fungi, then, give the nutrients to hydrocarbon-de-grading bacteria. Willows aren’t the only type of trees that demonstrate this behavior, though; rather, virtually any fast-growing tree is likely to do this, and that aspect of this research has been covered by previous studies and is well understood already. The kinds of pollutants that they tolerate are things like petroleum byproducts and heavy metals for example. Not only do fast-growing trees like willows tolerate these substances and materials but they also tend to rejuvenate the contaminated soil inadvertently.
The decontamination is referred to as phytoremediation, and it’s known as a sort of secondary metabolism. In the broadest sense, it’s a process by which plants produce specialized compounds intended to enable them to deal with stressors in their environment. What researchers in Montreal came to find in the new study, which they published in the peer-reviewed, scientific journal, Microbiome, indicates that there is more to this process that has yet to be understood. There is a far more complex mutualism of microbial life that facilitates willows’ phytoremediation with regard to pollutants in the land.
The research team relied on rather cutting-edge tactics to observe the concurrent gene expression of several different organisms within one ecosystem, and they looked at the roots of many willows that had matured on polluted land in a suburban area. They realized that there were all sorts of complex interactions taking place between ectomycorrhizal fungi of various kinds and specific bacteria who seemed to serve as the primary impetus for breaking down hydrocarbons in the soil. Mind you, those ectomycorrhizal fungi collectively sheathed the roots of the trees in this process, which proved fascinating in its own right.
“We normally approach genetics by limiting the investigation to single organisms or domains of life,” according to Emmanuel Gonzalez who served as the lead author of the study. Gonzalez is one McGill’s bioinformatics specialists at the Canadian Centre for Computational Genomics. “What was so surprising here was that, by looking for the genetics of all the life below-ground, the biological picture actually became easier to see. This also suggests that such complex mutualistic interactions may be the natural norm outside of the laboratory.”
For that matter, Nicholas Brereton says their “initial mindset was that bioinformatics and biology could be more profoundly integrated to see the diversity of function within a challenged root system.” Brereton is a research fellow from Université de Montréal at the Plant Biology Research Institute, and he was the senior author of the published paper. “This quite quickly led to technical improvements in how we could observe gene expression across multiple life-forms, leading to new environmental biology discoveries. We hope these findings showcase how powerful cross-disciplinary dialogue can be for revealing the incredibly intricate solutions present in the natural world.”
Indeed, these interdisciplinary approaches effect a synthesis of data as well as methodology, and working together on this research project is what led them to realize the intricate way that fast-growing trees cooperate symbiotically with fungi and bacteria to clean land. It all suggests that cooperation is, perhaps, the most natural phenomenon in the world, which makes it far more understandable that scientists are now studying the global threat that unites us all — global warming — by enlisting so-called citizen scientists to help them study all kinds of things. The Field Museum in Chicago, for example, is doing exactly this for a study in progress, which is concentrated on tiny plants, chiefly bryophytes, because they believe it will tell them a great deal about the effects of climate change.
Kalman Strauss is a 16-year-old sophomore in high school in Chicago, and he’s currently involved in this study himself. He’s taking clear pictures of specimens and measuring them; he’s even workshopping the basics of this kind of involvement for others who are interested. He was intrigued by bryophytes as a preteen when he found them in a botany textbook in school. “I’d always loved these little plants and noticed them when I went hiking, but learning about them made more interested than ever,” Strauss explains. “Unfortunately, these microscopic plants can be very difficult to study and identify on your own.” That’s why the new research method was such a godsend for him.
“I’ve had the pleasure of seeing lots of different people get introduced to these beautiful little plants,” Strauss adds, speaking of multiple types of bryophytes — liverworts, hornworts, and mosses. To top it all off, his enthusiastic and well-informed efforts have landed him a listing as a co-author on the newly published paper that researchers from the Field Museum in Chicago have published in Applications in Plant Sciences. “It’s a huge honor.”
[researchpaper 리서치페이퍼= Cedric Dent 기자]