The secret internet of plants

Did you know that there is a secret internet of plants and that they communicate with each other through underground fungal networks?

Until recently, when two people lived far away and wanted to communicate, they wrote a letter and had to wait for the mail to deliver it. With the advent of the telephone, long-distance conversations became easier, but the exchange of photographs, articles, and books still required physical support and text messaging services.

The Internet, the network of networks, has changed the rules of the game since the end of the 20th century. Now you can send, receive and download images, audio files, videos and entire text libraries from the web.

Since its invention, the Internet has undergone significant changes. Today, it is a huge network that, in addition to connecting people in an unprecedented way, also provides search engines, amazing artificial intelligence, and coordinates and controls many physical resources, geolocation systems or home devices: the called Internet of Things. Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest achievements of recent times in the field of technology, a purely human system.

However, there are organizations that have a unique communication system based on the connection of nodes and the creation of networks that transmit information. A system similar to our Internet.

Nature's secret internet: Mycorrhizal symbiosis

Mycorrhizae are one of the most common and ancient examples of symbiosis. German biologist Albert Bernhard Frank coined the term "symbiosis" when he discovered the phenomenon of mycorrhizae.

In these fungi, their hyphae establish close connections with the roots of the plants, so close that the fungi sometimes penetrate inside the plant cells. Initially it was considered a minor or exceptional event, but since the mid-20th century it has been considered a common and very important phenomenon.

Fungi provide plants with mineral salts and water from the outside, as far as their roots reach, as well as substances that they receive from the environment through the mycelial network and that they introduce directly into the roots. For its part, the plant nourishes the fungus by providing it with sugar and vitamins. Additionally, both organisms benefit from mutual protection against environmental stress. In some species, the relationship is so close that interdependence develops.

A secret internet between roots and fungi

Avatar by James Cameron begins with an interesting plot premise revealed by Dr. Grace Augustine, played brilliantly by the great Sigourney Weaver: Pandora's plants transmit electrical impulses to each other, like neurons in the brain. This is not how plants work in the real world, however, the idea of ​​connectivity and information networks is not as far-fetched as you might think.

If two computers can connect to each other using fiber optic cables and transmit data between them, two plants can do it too. And in this comparison, the fiber would be the mycorrhiza.

Mycorrhizae arise from the roots of different plants that can come into contact with each other and thus connect one plant to another. Mycorrhizal networks between plants have been observed in most terrestrial ecosystems, and just as the Internet allows the transfer of data from one computer to another, mycorrhizal networks allow the exchange of substances. And if there is something that plants are good at, it is the ability to produce substances.

In this way, the fungal symbiotic network becomes the secret internet of plants, a complex adaptive system that allows entire plant communities to interact at different scales, leading to self-organization and the emergence of new properties in the ecosystem.

Email threat notification

The transmission of signals through symbiotic networks of fungi in the soil becomes an active communication system between plants. Some of these signs are warning signs. In 2014, a research team led by Yuanyuan Song of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing described the defense signals emitted by tomato mycorrhizal fungi as a result of caterpillar invasion on one of the crop plants. The signal caused an increase in insect resistance by activating defensive enzymes in plants connected by mycorrhizae.

This communication system is not exclusive but complements other means such as aerial communication that uses volatile substances. Each one has advantages and disadvantages. Aerial communication is faster and provides more immediate feedback, although it becomes less effective in wind or rain. In turn, communication through the secret underground internet of mycorrhizae is slower and so is its response, but it is a more durable, stable signal independent of environmental conditions.

Collaborative social network of vegetables

It is commonly believed that nature operates only through competition, that living beings constantly strive to be the best and that the worse off some are, the better it is for the rest. The so-called "Law of the jungle." However, in the plant world, this diagram is oversimplified and has many errors.

Plants in a shared ecosystem are not governed by competition but by cooperation. This is a characteristic of its biological nature, created by evolutionary forces: a stable and robust plant community will preserve the genes of individuals better than one that is unstable and in constant dispute.

Through mycorrhizal networks, plants not only exchange information but can also exchange nutrients. If in a given environment there are plants that have a high capacity to obtain or synthesize products, while other plants are deficient, then the nutrients will be redistributed, from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, for the good of the community. A redistribution that is carried out through this secret internet, the mycorrhizal network.

This phenomenon has been observed, for example, in ecosystems where legumes are present. This family of plants is characterized by the presence of nodules on the roots with bacterial colonies capable of capturing atmospheric nitrogen and fixing it in plant tissues in the form of nutrients. For this reason, legumes do not usually suffer from nitrogen deficiency, but this is a privilege that not all plants have.

If the legume environment lacks nitrogen salts as nutrients, there will be an active flow of nitrogen from the fixed legumes through the mycorrhizal network to the plants that need it. According to research, this transfer can represent between 20% and 50% of the ecosystem's total nitrogen.

The underground interactions between plants and fungi through symbiotic networks reveal a world of interconnection, cooperation and communication that challenges our traditional understanding of nature. In addition to competition for light and space, this nutrient metabolism and emergency alert system also emphasizes the importance of biological synergy for the survival and development of ecosystems.

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