Cooperation enhances survival in the plant world 

This past week wasn’t a great one.  We learned that hackers got into government computers last March and now know more about our nuclear program than ordinary citizens ever will; that the head of the Defense Department has decided to stop daily briefings for the Biden administration; and that coronavirus deaths in the U.S. have jumped 50% in the last month while deaths in Belgium, France, and Saudi Arabia have fallen 50%. 

But this time isn’t without bright spots. Several hundred Idaho health care workers have received their first coronavirus vaccinations. Although Congress didn’t agree on a relief bill last week, leaders didn’t give up on passing one before adjourning. The longest night of the year is behind us, and Christmas lies ahead.

And a recent article in the New York Times magazine, “The Social Life of Forests”, has given me a better understanding of our world–and more hope for its future.  

While a graduate student at the University of Oregon, Suzanne Simard set out to learn the function of white, threadlike fungi that attached to roots beneath the soil. She planted Douglas fir and paper birch trees, covered each one with a plastic bag, added air with radioactive carbon dioxide to one species and, to the other, a carbon with extra neutrons.

When she studied leaves and pulverized wood from each tree, she found that carbon had made its way from the paper birch trees to the young, shaded Douglas firs in the summer and from the young Douglas firs to the paper birch trees in the fall as they were losing their leaves.   

Now a professor at the University of British Columbia, Simard has spent over 30 years studying mycorrhizas–hundreds of species of threadlike fungi–and the transfers they carry among trees, ferns, herbs, and shrubs in our forests.  .  

She’s found that mycorrhizas carry nitrogen, water, phosphorus, hormones, and signals among forest plants and keep a small amount of sugar-carbon for themselves. Douglas fir seedlings stripped of their leaves received nutrition from nearby ponderosa pines. One large, old tree was found to be linked with 47 other trees and, through them, to at least 250 more. 

Clear cutting is now practiced in less than half of our nation’s forests. It  increases the number of landslides and floods, strips nutrients from the soil, kills fish and pollutes sources of drinking water. And, more important to logging operations, clearing land of competing species hurts, rather than helps, survival of new seedlings.  

More and more loggers are now removing trees in narrow bands, letting seedlings get established before cutting most overstory trees (shelterwood), and/or leaving some adult trees to provide future seed. 

Simard and collaborators are now studying harvested areas that have preserved varying ratios of veteran trees to seedlings–60%, 30%, and 10%–to determine which method is most productive. 

Other scientists are broadening research to various environs. “Recent research suggests that mycorrhizal networks also perfuse prairies, grasslands, chaparral and Arctic tundra — essentially everywhere there is life on land.” 

The prevalence of cooperative networks throughout the plant world reveals a new aspect of the creator–or, if you prefer, creative force. 

It was amazing to learn that microorganisms inside us are important to our bodily functions and outnumber our own cells by 10 to 1, while making up 3% or less of our weight.

To learn that this cooperation exists not only inside individual beings, but may extend to communities with multiple species, is mind stretching.

A century ago science hypothesized that competition was the key to survival; now it is finding that cooperation among individuals, species, even phyla, is a major element in survival in the plant kingdom–and perhaps beyond.   

Published by Judy Ferro

Judy Ferro is communication director for the 2C Dems and a columnist for the Idaho Press.

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