Claim: Fungus Can Help Plants Tolerate Heat

This is a photograph of Morning Glory Pool from Aug. 23, 2012. Credit Joseph Shaw, Montana State University
This is a photograph of Morning Glory Pool from Aug. 23, 2012.
Joseph Shaw, Montana State University

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Scientists studying mechanisms by which plants growing in hot geothermal soils like Yellowstone National Park tolerate extreme heat, claim they have discovered symbiotic fungi which impart significant heat tolerance to a wide range of plants.

According to Grist;

… But there’s a lesser-known type of fungus that actually grows inside the bodies of most, if not all, plants, inhabiting the empty spaces between cells. Fungi that do this are known as endophytes, and they’re what Rodriguez and Redman found were the key to those plants surviving in Yellowstone.

Alone, neither the fungus nor the plants could survive temperatures higher than about 100 degrees F. But with their powers combined, they could somehow tolerate the extreme heat of geothermal soils. What’s more, the plants infected with these fungi seemed to require less water and nutrients to grow as much — if not more — biomass than those uninfected, while maintaining the same — or better — nutrient levels.

When Rodriguez and Redman tried infecting tomato and watermelon plants with the fungus, they found that both developed the same extreme heat tolerance within just 24 hours.

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This seems to be a pretty extreme claim, which might not stand up to deeper scrutiny. Suggesting a general effect across a wide range of plant species implies a common underlying heat resistance mechanism, which the endophyte in question can engage – which if true, is itself an intriguing proposition. Endophytes in general do not appear to be receiving much attention from researchers, compared to more fashionable fields of research such as transgenics, so we can only speculate what important opportunities are possibly being neglected.

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November 17, 2015 4:54 pm

Too bad those plants in Yellowstone can’t stand a forest fire. Went there this August to show the “jewel of the West” to a friend from Oz. If you like trees, it isn’t the place to go. Once past the Chinese tourists, you’ll find a Park Ranger holding a trail closed sign. That is if you can get in. The west entrance had a backup most of the way to California. Luckily we were going the other way the hell out of there into Montana (and a whole bunch more fires). Almost makes you think there’s something to Global Warming. Almost.

Reply to  Expat
November 17, 2015 5:29 pm

Not a lot of trees around the interesting volcanic parts of Yellowstone, at least not on the geyser basins. This probably wasn’t the best year to go there, and August probably wasn’t the best month, either. I know. You gotta play the cards you are dealt.

george e. smith
Reply to  jpatrick
November 18, 2015 9:10 am

So we really do have to worry about the fungus amongus !
Who knew ??

NC Brian
Reply to  Expat
November 17, 2015 8:11 pm

Back in the 60s when I was in the Boy Scouts in the west, the ranger told us that because we humans were stopping wildfires, the brush and tinder was building up on the forest floor. This meant that once a fire started, it was much worse. Before we started tending to the forests, most fires stayed on the ground and did not destroy the trees. Now the fires are bigger and once they get to the crown of the trees, they take off like crazy.

Fred White
Reply to  NC Brian
November 17, 2015 11:07 pm

While stopping fires while they are small does contribute to fuel build up, so does not harvesting the trees and the lack of funds to the forest service from the timber harvests that used to help with fuel management and provide access to more areas of the forest for fire control.
The largest forest fire in US history was the “Big Burn” in 1910, about 3 million acres burned in this fire in Washington, Idaho and Montana. While we had started “TENDING” the forests out west it had not been going on for long at that time and the Forest Service was only a couple of years old. The Big Burn was what prompted the Forest Service to concentrate on stopping fires before they could grow big.

Reply to  NC Brian
November 18, 2015 12:38 am

I had a similar experience in Australia climbing Mount Difficult. The forest floor was meter+ deep in fallen branches and trees, to the extent that we couldn’t see the ground let alone walk on it, the stuff simply never rotted, the natural cycle was that it would be burned to clear it. There were areas in the bush that had been burned a matter of a few months before and they were verdant, new green growth everywhere. The comparison was quite remarkable.

Reply to  Expat
November 17, 2015 10:55 pm

I was there on bicycle in early July 1974 – no fires, great weather, a few elk. Awful bicycling on roads, amazing place once 100 feet off the roads. Oh yeah – and a bear that forced closing Canyon campground to bicyclists.
Ride from northeast entrance over Beartooth Pass to Red Lodge MT was an amazing ride. A lot of climbing, but the tundra at the top was worth it. “Big Sky State” – indeed.
Back in January 1989 after the 1988 fires. Someone in the lodge rebuilding the fire with blackened logs commented “We like to test the wood before using it in the fireplace.” Bison up close, staff distributed useful information about bison, getting past them, and how to tell when they’re annoyed at you.
Back on a side trip on our 2003 bike tour. Later July, fire season building up. Elk and bison all over. Staff distributed useless summer info about bison – “stay at least 100 yards away.” I wonder how many Japanese know what a yard is. Things recovering after 1988:
Go to the Norris Geyser Basin for the first time. Scary place, hottest of all the basins, and half closed because ground temperatures melted a ranger’s boot soles while he was measuring the ground temperature. Steam sounds like the leaky steam pipes in the steam tunnels at college, half expect a steam explosion under my feet. Did I say it was a scary place?

Reply to  Expat
November 18, 2015 12:14 am

Check Michael Crichton on U-tube for what happened to Yellowstone and you will see why what you saw…..
Odd that a populist author knows more than most Climate fraudsters.

check at about minute 45 or so.

Reply to  Expat
November 18, 2015 7:54 am

There are still pullenty of trees in Yellowstone. I personally like the burned areas better. Driving down trenches cut into interminable stands of 50′ lodgepoles about 8″ diameter two feet on center in every direction doesn’t do much for me. All you can see is the horizon slot and the road.

November 17, 2015 4:59 pm

What can go wrong? Just s’posin’, what if that fungus is inedible, or becomes inedible in combination with other hosts, and finds its way into the food chain not unlike “contained” (learning to understand that word better) GMO genetics that find their way far from home? It is the nature of chaos that sometimes an isolated change has sweeping effects long after the event. Something as seemingly innocuous as a hairless ape comes along and, well…, that story is still being written.

Reply to  dp
November 17, 2015 6:41 pm

Fungal spores are everywhere. s’posin’ these are aiding the greening of the deserts? Got to be a grant in that 🙂

Reply to  dp
November 17, 2015 8:56 pm

The endophytes (the fungus) don’t live in the edible parts of the plant.

Reply to  RWTurner
November 18, 2015 1:08 am

Surely that depends on the plant?
Carrots – roots
Asparagus – stem
Cabbage – leaf
Cauliflower – Er, flower
Tomato – fruit
Maple syrup – sap
Sticking random fungi in random plants does not immediately sound a good plan.

November 17, 2015 5:00 pm

There must be an ‘Ology’ for it somewhere,add to the list here.

November 17, 2015 5:16 pm

Fungi are amazing things.
The World’s Largest Mining Operation Is Run by Fungi
The fungus forms a root sheath called a “mantle”, and from this mantle, it sends hyphae both into the soil and into the root. The hyphae that invade the root do not actually invade the cells there. Instead, they weave a web around them, a structure known as the “Hartig Net”.
Why would a tree put up with such a flagrant home invasion? To start, the net is a secure place where the fungus and the tree can exchange goodies.

Unassisted, trees are limited to their own relatively meager collection of root hairs, found only near the tips of roots. The rest of the root is just a conduit. Fungi, by contrast, absorb across their entire bodies. Furthermore, root tips are vastly larger than a hypha. Even root hair cells – the finest filament available to roots, which sprout from the side of root tips — are around 15 micrometers in diameter. That’s one and a half to five times as large as a hypha. You can easily see them with the naked eye.

November 17, 2015 5:51 pm

Mushroom walks into a bar.
Bartender says ” We do not serve your kind”.
Mushroom says “Why not? I’m a fun guy!”

Reply to  Menicholas
November 17, 2015 6:31 pm

Bartender says “I just don’t think you’re that fun Gus.”

D.J. Hawkins
Reply to  Menicholas
November 18, 2015 10:44 am

Menicholas with the attack!
Dawtgtomis with the parry riposte!

Alex in VA
November 17, 2015 5:52 pm

I studied plant-pathogen (fungal) interactions some in grad school, and it is truly an amazing area. I wanted to follow that path but it wasn’t open (funding/grad school politics) and took a different path. To this day I’m fascinated at what we know and are learning about the interconnected plant-fungal relationship. I’m assuming there are even more and more interesting interactions to follow, though I’m hoping that they will lead to applications that solve problems rather than just curiosities for our amazement.

Carol Potenza
November 17, 2015 6:02 pm

This is not a new phenomenon. The literature is full of ways that fungi/endophytes protect hosts, including with drought/heat. Some will even synthesize toxins or poisons to protect plants from herbivory. Just Google it.

November 17, 2015 6:28 pm – Mycorrhiza association – I was taught this in my studies in botany with the example of how pine seeds brought to Oz failed to grow after germinating.. seedlings brought in soil however grew fine. Since then I have learned it wasn’t just the pine that depended on this symbiotic relationship, a vast majority of plants rely on fungi at some point, particularly orchids who cannot germinate without their fungal friends. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find different strains of fungi impart different capacity for survival to plants.

Joel O’Bryan
November 17, 2015 7:30 pm

Toxoplasma infections in humans have been reported to be associated with higher rates of schizophrenia in humans.
That’s my conjecture for alarmists. The climate boogeyman lives only in their head.

Owen in GA
Reply to  Joel O’Bryan
November 18, 2015 6:57 am

Ohh, I can see a grant here “Correlating CO2 with Schizophrenia Rates. All you have to do is manipulate the definition of the diagnosis for schizophrenia and the statistical manipulation practically writes itself.
I can see the Press Release for the paper now: “INDUSTRIALIZED MAN CAUSING THE WORLD TO GO CRAZY!!!!!” (Extra exclamation points need to convey the appropriate level of alarm.)

Alan Robertson
November 17, 2015 8:22 pm

For those interested in plant/fungal mycorrhizal symbiosis, here’s an informative interview with Dr. Roger Koide:

Curious George
Reply to  Alan Robertson
November 18, 2015 5:50 pm

Sorry, I can’t spare 28 minutes on watching something I could read in three minutes. Just a remark, orchids parasite on fungi.

November 17, 2015 10:04 pm

In Australia, Green initiatives to stop clearing of accumulated undergrowth and precautionary bush-offs allowed brush and tinder to build up on the forest floor. Once a fire starts it has a lot more fuel to feed itself on. It would be better to have no management at all and just allow all forest fires to run and just protect habitations. Fires in the tops of gum trees leap fast and leave the trees still alive and able to recover.

Reply to  ntesdorf
November 18, 2015 3:13 am

A gum tree is in effect an incendiary device, natural of course. When it goes up, it really goes up! Put dead leaves on a fire (BBQ), watch them burn hot,

Joel O'Bryan
November 17, 2015 10:08 pm

You seem to like these unusual biology findings.
Try this one:

Reply to  Joel O'Bryan
November 17, 2015 10:16 pm hypes again. Not blood:

“The reddish staining is caused by Haematococcus pluvialis, a freshwater green microalgae that is capable of synthesising a red carotene pigment called astaxanthin when in a state of stress,” explains the geologist Javier Fernández-Lozano, co-author of the study, to SINC.

November 17, 2015 10:22 pm

Sigh, Morning Glory Pool keeps turning greener and greener. I really do need to scan my Kodachromes from 1974. Here’s what it looked like in 2003:
Yellowstone is one of the few places in the world where I don’t cringe when I hear the word “unique.”

Reply to  Ric Werme
November 18, 2015 12:20 am

Gotta be careful in Yellowstone – not just the fungi…

Keith Willshaw
Reply to  J. Philip Peterson
November 18, 2015 3:48 am

Yeah those tourists are amazingly stoopid.
Last time I was in Yellowstone one almost got trampled to death by a female Buffalo when he tried to get a selfie with her calf. He then ranted at a ranger that it was dangerous and should be shot. The ranger kept his cool and pointed out that a) It was a wild animal and b) Domestic cattle are apt to do the same if their young are threatened.

Owen in GA
Reply to  J. Philip Peterson
November 18, 2015 7:02 am

Last time I was in Yellowstone, there was a Japanese tourist putting his kids on a sleeping Bison to get a picture. Luckily that 1400 pounds of mean didn’t wake up and gore the lot of them. When I saw it, I quickly put my kids back in the car and drove to the next overlook.

November 18, 2015 2:34 am

As any farmer who has tried to earn a living by growing some of the vast range of plant and grass species consumed by mankind will tell you, fungal infections , eg; “rust” in grain, powdery mildew on the roses and a few hundred or thousand other varieties of fungus will all be in there busily trying to get their cut of the available plant tucker so conveniently provided by the farmers in very large bulk lots.
The manner of infection of a plant varies immensely but one such fungal growth system involves minute filaments called hypha which after the fungal spore has landed on the plant and germinated into the mature form of the fungi either create their own entry point through the plant leafs epidermis or they find a stomata on the underside of the leaves by the gases [ O2 included ] and moisture being expelled through the stomata.
From there the Hypha can grow through the plant using the vascular system of the plant and thus feeding the fungus creating more spore production which then drifts off to infect other near bye or occasionally very distant plants thus creating a new center of the fungal outbreak.
If you eat the product of a plant it is a given that you will also likely be consuming some fungal interlopers that have managed at some time in the life of the plant to establish a low level of occupancy on that plant matter as well.
But we can take this into another realm of conjecture, one which I have never come across in a lay persons level of medical and science literature.
Unfortunately I have a long running toe nail fungal infection problem.
I also have a bunion on one foot.
The bunion often aches and can be very uncomfortable especially when walking .
BUT when I get a bit consistent in trying to treat my toe nail fungal infection with one of those claimed nail fungus drug cures, the bunion stops aching completely within a day or so.
Stop the nail fungus treatment and within a couple of days the bunion begins to ache all over again
My reaction to this and having a farmers practical working knowledge of fungal infections in plants and the way in which some fungal species can spread through the plant via it’s various moisture and nutrient transporting systems, the plants vascular systems, is that the nail fungus has actually penetrated into my foot bone structure at least and the application of the anti fungal drug temporarily hammers the fungal hypha that has penetrated to the inside of my foot bone structure right down.
Toe nails and finger nails are of course a type of bone themselves.
So if a fungus infects the outside type of bone, why not the bone structure inside as well through its human body equivalent of the filamentary hypha as in plants.
To take that a bit further.
I often wonder now if diseases of the joints and even the erosion of the bone structure in the joints is in part caused by the still undetected hypha, the fungal filaments that have grown through a part of the living bone structure of the human body from all the numerous species of fungal infections which are always present on any living body be it plant, animal or human.
Nobody seems to have found any evidence of such deep penetration bone structure fungal filament infections.
But then again I suspect that nobody has actually taken a long hard look inside of human and animal bone structures to see if such hypha or their fungal equivalents are there and causing or contributing to a big proportion of our human bone disease problems.

Reply to  ROM
November 18, 2015 3:49 pm

Apply the stimulus, note the response; withdraw the stimulus, note the absence of response; repeat. You have satisfied the standard medical test for X (antifungal) causes Y (less bunion pain), at least for you. And nail infections can apparently get into the blood, so why not joints/bones? This sounds like something that ought to be investigated.
However, fingernails and toenails are made of keratin, which is the kind of stuff that hair is made of. Bone is made of calcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, and collagen. Toenails and fingernails are not a kind of bone. They don’t need to be for your idea to have merit.

November 18, 2015 2:38 am

This is not a particularly new field of research, namely adaptation to heat and cold. I did a module on precisely this topic as a Biochemistry Undergraduate in 1985/6 in Cambridge UK. It being biochemistry and not environmental ecology, greater focus was placed on proteins produced in response to those stresses, as well as several others including high salinity, acidity, alkalinity etc etc. Back in those days, discovering methanogenic bacteria in deep vents was quite sexy, novel and trendy. Most interestingly, relatively small numbers of changes in amino acid composition of key proteins could alter enzyme activity at high temperature from zero to 100% (be that at 65C for B. Stearothermophilus or 95C for T. Aquaticus). The whole automated DNA sequencing industry did, after all, emerge from the isolation of thermostable DNA polymerases……
Broadly speaking you will find adaptational responses at the levels of specific proteins produced (the Heat Shock Protein family was named for fairly obvious reasons), there are anti-freeze proteins produced in species capable of living at less than zero (intracellular ice crystals is bad news) and reindeer showed altered lipid composition in cell membranes in their hooves, which obviously contact very frozen subzero temperature materials in winter. One suspects that the potential range of adaptational scenarios can be very large……
The most interesting question here is what the overall effect on the biological system is of this symbiosis and how the system manifests that altered tolerance at the biochemical level.
Only then are you likely to understand why which plants, if any, will show similar effects upon ‘infection’….

November 18, 2015 2:54 am

All this evolved well before plants ever existed.

November 18, 2015 3:11 am

It seems everybody has their favourite endophytic fungus. Mine is fusarium redolens, a fungus that grows inside the bark of taxus baccata and other taxus sp., also known as yew tree.
For many years it was thought that taxol, an effective anticancer drug that interferes with microtubule function during mitosis, was produced by the bark of old yew trees. Since these trees are a protected species there was much concern about killing the trees to extract the active compound.
It turned out that it wasn’t the tree the one producing taxol, but this endophytic fungus that only grows inside the bark or yews (with a y, not a j) of a certain age.

November 18, 2015 6:43 am

“But with their powers combined”
What are they, the Wonder Twins?

November 18, 2015 8:10 am

Our ignorance is so very, very close to infinite. We know stuff like fungi appear to have not evolved until the Carboniferous, latecomers as microbes go. We know viruses can infect fungi. We know that if we had electron micrograph eyes we would appear to each other as monsters covered with coral reefs of microbes.comment image

Reply to  gymnosperm
November 19, 2015 7:08 am

oh I dont know re monsters
its sorta pretty 😉

November 20, 2015 12:04 pm

Chloroplasts and mitochondria are more than just organelles. They have their own nucleic acids, proteins, and enzymes. They also live entirely within the bodies of other cells, consuming raw materials and producing products that are essential to the survival of their host cells.

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