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Michael Phillips on Mycorrhizal Fungi and Plants

In an interview in the Acres U.S.A. magazine, Michael Phillips, an organic orchardist practising holistic and biodynamic techniques to grow healthy fruit, vegetables and soil, explains the symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and plants

Phillips is the co-founder of The Holistic Orchard Network, keynote speaker and author of several books, including “Mycorrhizal Planet: How Fungi and Plants Work Together to Create Dynamic Soils”. This blog post summarises some of Phillips’ key findings and explores how mycorrhizal fungi work symbiotically with plant roots.

What are mycorrhizal fungi?

Mycorrhizal fungi constitute a group of root obligate biotrophs that form a close symbiotic relationship with plant roots. 

The direct symbiosis between soil fungus and plant roots 

“The mycorrhizal network is a social democracy practising free trade economics in a mutually beneficial biological barter.” 

Phillips says: “It’s the two together that make nature’s magic happen by bringing nutrients to plants on a very simple level.” 

Mycorrhizal fungi networks are considered natural biofertilisers, providing the host plant with water, nutrients, and pathogen protection in exchange for photosynthetic products.

Here’s how it works:

  • Plants generate carbon sugars through photosynthesis
  • In essence, they ‘trade’ with mycorrhizal fungi with these nutrients
  • The fungi benefit from the nutrients, and help protect plant roots from disease organisms
  • This relationship is the basis of resilient ecosystems

Did you know? Over 95% of plants on the planet have this symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. 

We know that mycorrhizal fungi provide the host plant with water, nutrients, and pathogen protection in exchange for photosynthetic products, but how do these benefits actually come to fruition?

Mycorrhizal fungi carbon sequester

Along with bacterial partners, mycorrhizal fungi produce a protein substance called glomalin (made up of approximately 40% carbon). When plants are investing carbon sugars in their roots in order to form flowers and grow fruit, there’s a strong demand for nutrient trade. The feeder roots of the plants form a strong symbiotic relationship with the mycorrhizal fungi to meet higher carbon requirements during the reproductive period. 

Once the demanding reproductive phase ends, the roots of the plants and the hyphae of the fungi retract. When this happens, the fungi leave behind the glomalin coating, effectively adding 40% carbon to the soil. 

Glueing the soil together

Another characteristic of glomalin is that it acts like glue. Fungi thus bind together particles of sand, silt, clay and humus with water tucked into the micropores. This creates soil aggregates that get bigger and become macroaggregates, creating good soil tilth. 

The shared plant root fungus economy 

Phillips says: “The basis of this underground economy is the fact that plant saps and fungal hyphae merge; let’s recognise this as a shared protoplasm – and this is where all the nutrient trades take place.”

The relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and plants is by no means an individual affair. With plant diversity comes mycorrhizal network diversity, allowing for a ‘sharing’ of resources within the ecosystem. For example, if a fungal partner delivers zinc that a certain plant doesn’t need, other fungi (through the shared protoplasm) can take that zinc to the other side of the field where there is another type of plant that needs it. Another example of this “social democracy” is when tall, vigorous plants at the height of the canopy in the sunshine deliver a little more carbon sugar to the roots so that these nutrients can be distributed throughout the plant community. 

“What we’re touching on here is that this whole evolution across biological kingdoms points relentlessly to cooperation and support networks as a way to process in life. The ecologist Frank Egler said that nature is not more complicated than we think; it’s more complicated than we can think.”

Amazing, isn’t it?

How the fungal network becomes disrupted 

Disturbing the natural ecology causes a loss of important biological connections, such as the mycorrhizal fungi network. Soil can be ‘injured’ and land degraded by tillage, fire, herbicides and pesticides. These inputs can break up the fungal network, and the soil starts to lose the basis of its aggregation and tilth. 

The importance of plant diversity

“It’s when you have that plant diversity that you reach a point where there are enough mycorrhizal fungi and different soil bacteria finding niches to cooperate and work together in a support network. That is when this earth really hums.” 

The amount of fungus in plant soil, healthy mycorrhizal fungal network and a diversity of plants are closely linked. Phillips cites an example of triticale being grown in the Dakotas. When the plant was grown all by itself in the hot and dry summer, it was “going nowhere”. It was then grown with three different crop species; still nothing. Four, five and six species: still not flourishing. It was only when there were eight different species growing with the triticale that the plant began to look green and lush, and grain heads began to form. At this stage, there was no need for irrigation since there was enough diversity to form a common mycorrhizal network moving water through the systems and balancing different elements. Thus, to improve mycorrhiza and plant health, it’s important to build in plant diversity. 

Phillips’ parting inspiration 

Phillips concludes: “My message to fellow growers across the country, across the planet, is to stand strong, speak up and make this fungal revolution tangible. Everywhere. The plants and fungi have always sung what I think of as a soil redemption song—and they’ll continue to sing it —and that is what makes life possible on earth. Our job is to emulate all these good teachings and to make it part of our agriculture, part of our communities, part of our innate understanding of what it is to be a caring human on this blessed planet.”

Phillips also sums up the role of the conscious farmer beautifully: 

“There was a time when farmers referred to what they were doing as the ‘making of the crop’. That it didn’t just happen because you had the right fertiliser and you had the right rains at the right times and then went in and got the harvest, but that you were actually a co-creator in that plot of ground and that crop you’re growing for food – for your family and your community. I think all are great teachers… I think that whatever you’re growing, when it becomes alive for you, it’s not a commodity – it’s alive, a life force. You can sense the pulse of the biology in the soil. You can sense those green cells reaching up to the sunshine, and you become one with that. I don’t think it gets better.”

At RegenZ, we agree with Phillips’ philosophies; we are distributors of Nutri-Life Platform®, which contains huge numbers of Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) (four species) and five strains of Trichoderma together in one breakthrough blend. Root health is plant health, and these organisms are the essence of healthy roots. 

Get in touch to find out more about the healthy way to promote soil health through the mycorrhizal network

Interested in reading the full interview? 

Visit Acres USA to purchase a back issue and read the original article along with other interesting content.