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The Fungus Among Us

fungus


PHOTOGRAPHED BY SHEREE WENTZ

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When the first plants emerged on land, they had no roots. To live in soil, they needed a fungus to obtain food. About 80 percent of plants on Earth rely on these arbuscular endomycorrhizal fungi, as they are called, to flourish. Professor Joe Morton, who for decades has shepherded and grown the collection of these fungi at West Virginia University — the world’s largest collection of the fungi by far with 1,100 cultures representing 121 species — calls them immortal.

They break into separate parts from the original whole instead of growing new, younger offspring, and each “individual” is dispersed globally. They are too tiny to see without a microscope, thus often going unnoticed. For 400 million years, these fungi have helped plants to take nutrients from soil, offered protection and in turn are rewarded with carbon. Today, with WVU’s help, some carefully chosen fungi are distributed worldwide to help plants to grow in barren and damaged soils. Here, we give you a chance to know some of them as their proud papa does. There are the superheroes. The green ones. The difficult ones. But you can call them all lifesavers. See more online: go.wvu.edu/fungi.


Fungus samples


Bill Wheeler

BILL WHEELER 
Research Assistant


HIS PICKS 
Stained Roots 
Spore Collection Process 


"Plant roots appear unchanged even though they are chock full of one or more fungi and so they must be cleaned and stained to see them clearly and to measure how much they have grown and spread.


Spores can form within roots, but mostly they are present in the surrounding soil. To collect them, we must put the soil in a tube containing sugar solution and spin the tube in a centrifuge so the soil is pressed to the bottom and the spores float above. We pull them off, wash them, examine their health and abundance, and then use them to start new cultures or for other scientific purposes."


Joe Morton

JOE MORTON 
Professor of Environmental Microbiology


HIS PICKS: 
Gigaspora margarita (top left) 
Gigaspora gigantea (top right) 
Network of hyphae and spores (bottom left) 
Rhizophagus intraradices (bottom right) 


A germinating spore of Gigaspora margarita, which is easy to see because of of the spore’s large size. The spore sends out multiple ‛germ tubes’ (or hyphae), which are attracted to a root surface. Each hypha penetrates directly into the root and begins a symbiosis with the plant host. Applying individual spores to a seedling root and allowing the plant to grow for 3–4 months is the best way to obtain a pure culture of the fungus.  


Spores of Gigaspora gigantea, aptly named because they can attain diameters of up to ½ to ¾ of a centimeter. In the fungal kingdom, that is huge!


A network of hyphae and spores produced from mycorrhizal development of Rhizophagus intraradices in immortalized chicory roots growing on an agar medium containing nutrients and hormones. This species is present in many habitats worldwide and is the major fungal component in most commercial inoculants. 


Rhizophagus intraradices spores around and inside mycorrhizal roots. Many plants show strong benefit from a symbiosis with this fungal species, and so it is in high demand by many users for experimental or commercial purposes.