Knowledge of fungi helps to map risks of genetically modified crops

February 14, 2012, Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)

Plant fungi are indispensable for a good plant growth. Dutch researcher Erik Verbruggen from the VU University Amsterdam has discovered that phosphate and grass-clover have an effect on the diversity and variation in the species composition of these fungi. His research results can be used to map the possible risks of genetically modified crops for natural fungal growth.

Eighty per cent of all plants on earth live together with . These fungi grow from the plants roots into the soil and help the plant to take up . In general, the plants grow better as a result of this. Conversely the also benefits from the plant, which provides the fungus with sugars – the product of aboveground photosynthesis – that flow from the plant to the rates.

Biologist Erik Verbruggen went in search of the factors in agricultural fields that affect the species composition of the fungi. The aim was to map when a disruption in the natural variation occurs. The outcome should be usable for testing the possible effects of genetically modified crops on fungal diversity and consequently on natural .

First of all Verbruggen established the species richness of mycorrhizal fungi under various conditions. 'Only if you know the natural variation can you make statements about what deviates from this,' he explains. Research into the diversity mycorrhizal fungi has never previously been performed on such a large scale in the Netherlands. Verbruggen studied 23 organic fields and an equal number of conventional fields with maize or potatoes, two highly prevalent crops in the Netherlands. In total he came across some 40 species of fungi. In organic farming the diversity was 50% higher than in conventional farming. 'That agrees with earlier studies,' says Verbruggen. ‘However, I came across 2 to 12 species of fungi in both types of agricultural fields. This means that the natural variation is quite considerable.'

Verbruggen then investigated which factors determine the fungal diversity. and crop rotation were found to be the most important. The lower the phosphate level in the soil the higher the diversity. The rotational cultivation of different crops also ensures a greater diversity in fungi, with grass-clover being the most important stimulus for fungal diversity. Verbruggen discovered that conventional agricultural fields with a low phosphate level and the regular cultivation of grass-clover still have a high diversity in fungi. In both types of agriculture these same factors ensure that one species of fungus does not predominate over the others. Such a predominance could be a sign of a disruption to the natural balance.

This study provides useful reference points for testing the possible effects of genetically modified crops on fungi. Verbruggen performed a test with transgenic maize. This crop did not have a strong disruptive effect on the species composition of fungi. In the future, a greater knowledge of fungi could allow more new crop varieties to be tested. Genetically modified crops are not cultivated in the Netherlands for commercial purposes but there are trial fields and laboratories that focus on the development of such .

Explore further: With fungi on their side, rice plants grow to be big

More information: Verbruggen defended his doctoral research into plant fungi on Thursday 9 February 2012.

Related Stories

With fungi on their side, rice plants grow to be big

June 10, 2010

By tinkering with a type of fungus that lives in association with plant roots, researchers have found a way to increase the growth of rice by an impressive margin. The so-called mycorrhizal fungi are found in association ...

Mold fungi can cure plants

November 1, 2011

We know them from our garden, from damp cellars or from the fridge - mold fungi can be found almost everywhere. Their success is due to their remarkable versatility:  depending on external conditions, they can choose ...

Fungi reduce need for fertilizer in agriculture

May 23, 2011

The next agricultural revolution may be sparked by fungi, helping to greatly increase food-production for the growing needs of the planet without the need for massive amounts of fertilizers according to research presented ...

Orchids and fungi: An unexpected case of symbiosis

July 12, 2011

The majority of orchids are found in habitats where light may be a limiting factor. In such habitats it is not surprising that many achlorophyllous (lacking chlorophyll), as well as green, orchids depend on specific mycorrhizal ...

Recommended for you

Predators learn to identify prey from other species

March 21, 2018

Wolves purportedly raised Romulus and Remus, who went on to rule Rome. Is there good scientific evidence for learning across species? Researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama wanted to know ...

Insects could help us find new yeasts for big business

March 21, 2018

Yeasts are tiny fungi - but they play key roles in producing everything from beer and cheese to industrial chemicals and biofuels. And now scientists are proposing a new approach that could help these industries find new ...

Promiscuity may have accelerated animal domestication

March 21, 2018

Domestication of wild animals may have accelerated as promiscuity increased among the high density populations drawn to life near humans, according to a new paper by University of Liverpool researchers.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.