The Earth’s Internet: How Fungi Help Plants Communicate


The internet connects more than half of the
world’s population through an invisible web of servers, computers,
and devices. It has changed our lives in countless ways by allowing otherwise separated people to
interact and by providing access to vast amounts of
information. But humans aren’t the only organisms on
the planet with an invisible interconnected network. While plants might seem like isolated, solitary
individuals, they’re capable of communicating with each
other, sometimes over considerable distances, all thanks to their special relationship with
fungi. Nearly all plant species we know of have a
mutually beneficial relationship with soil fungi called mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae grow a network of small, branching
tubes, called a mycelium, that extends throughout the soil, including
inside of or around plant roots. And these allow the fungi to absorb nutrients
from the soil, like nitrogen and phosphorus, which plants
struggle to extract. So they basically barter: in exchange for
those hard-to-get nutrients, the plants trade the fungi carbon in the form
of sugars. And ultimately, together, both can thrive
when they otherwise wouldn’t. This symbiotic relationship between plants
and fungi was discovered in the early 1900s, but it
wasn’t until 1997 that we understood just how deep this underground
network goes. Ecologist Suzanne Simard had a hunch that plants weren’t just sharing nutrients
with fungi, but also with each other. To test her hypothesis, she and her colleagues infused trees in a
forest with a traceable, radioactive form of carbon, and later took samples from neighboring trees. And it turned out many nearby trees had the
radioactive carbon, too, proving that plants could send nutrients back
and forth to one another. Not only that, they seemingly distributed the nutrients where
they were needed most. Plants need light energy to turn carbon dioxide
and water into sugar and oxygen thanks to that magical process called photosynthesis. So those in shade have less sugar to go around. Simard found that these shaded, energy-deficient
trees ended up with more of the radioactive carbon than their sunbathing counterparts. So it’s basically the plant-fungi equivalent
of feeding the hungry. Continued research into these underground
networks, called Common Mycelium Networks, has revealed that plants are not only able
to gain access to more nutrients, they can also engage in sophisticated communication by “talking” chemically through mycelia. And, it turns out, they’re saying quite
a bit! Generally, any seedling that’s plugged into
the Common Mycelium Network, or CMN, has a higher likelihood of surviving. And plants that are “online” are generally
healthier, too. Researchers think this has to do with having
access to an early warning system. When a plant is attacked, it releases chemicals that tell nearby plants something bad is coming
their way. This communication happens with airborne compounds, but also through a CMN. And other plants heed this warning. For example, when tomato plants are connected
by a CMN, and one plant is attacked by a pest, nearby plants will activate their defenses
before the pest reaches them. Scientists are only just starting to understand how important these plant networks are. They’ve discovered that entire forests can
be interconnected, but like with our internet, connectivity throughout an ecosystem isn’t
evenly distributed. Older, larger trees are more connected, kind of like some servers in the human internet. These highly connected trees are called hub
or mother trees. They have big root networks that host a greater
diversity of mycorrhizal fungi, and that allows them to interact with a lot
of other plants. They do play favorites, though… Scientists have shown they can send ‘care
packages’ of extra nutrients to their kin to help them survive, which is
how they got the mommy moniker. And they also can help forests transition
during times of change. When they’re injured or dying, they release
a surge of carbon into the network which nurtures the next generation
of trees, even if they’re a different species. Of course, no internet is complete without
hackers. Some plants can claim territory and influence
community dynamics by sending toxins into the CMN. Black Walnuts will use these networks to release toxins into the soil, for example. Those that are immune to the toxins thrive,
while others struggle or die off. And harmful worms, parasitic plants, and fungi can find their way to the plants they target
by following chemical trails emitted by the mycorrhizae underground. It’s amazing to think that this chemical
information superhighway was right below our noses for eons and yet
we had no clue. But now that we can finally plug in, it might
just help us connect with the planet’s flora in much more constructive
ways. Knowledge of this interconnectivity is helping
improve our relationship to plants, including things like forest conservation
and agriculture. For example, preserving the highly connected
mother trees from deforestation ensures mycorrhizal fungal diversity, and helps forest regrowth happen more quickly. And farming in soil with a CMN means plants
can warn each other of invading pests, which may reduce the need
for pesticides. Like with the human internet, the internet
of the earth increases security, awareness, and knowledge for those connected
to it—including us. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! If you liked learning about plant symbiotic
relationships, you might like our episode on how plants recruit
bodyguards.

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100 thoughts on “The Earth’s Internet: How Fungi Help Plants Communicate

  1. Mycorrhizae can also police their network. There are mycelia that form nooses from specific cells, and these nooses have their mechanisms to trap and squeeze nematodes.

  2. Amazing. I watch and thoroughly enjoy all your channels and content with my Fiance and kids. We learn amazing things every day. We watch the videos, then discuss them as we eat dinner. So we want thank you guys for creating such interesting programmes. Keep up the good work guys 👍

  3. I think our pre-civilization ancestors, living in the forests and plains, probably understood there was a connection between plants and trees in a local area. Tree worship may be partly a result of close observation of natural processes.

  4. It's amazing how all a plant needs is a bit of water and sunlight to produce food. There ain't many species capable of doing that.

  5. I had the unfortunate experience of choosing this video for beginner stenography practice in 0.25 speed.

  6. It sounds like i'm hearing the cadence from the first sentence over and over and over lol…(a.k.a. sounds monotone) It looks to be a consequence of doing so many cuts without paying any attention to the flow between cuts

  7. The nutrients are distributed where they're needed most? Are you telling me these trees are communists? Those damn red(wood)s!

  8. Even plants understand that you have to help each other out. Yet here we are, arguing over whether or not its a good idea to have Universal Healthcare and a living wage. lol

  9. It is great that this understanding is starting to become more mainstream. However, it is far from new. Some native american tribe on the east coast, perhaps elsewhere too, were aware of this well before the 19th century. They lacked the scientific terms and experimental data to prove their beliefs. It seems that there data was more experiential and observational than anything else.

  10. ohh now i know why The Grand Oak rhythm —-> he wants to connect ….. dam it dragon age origins mess up my head

  11. sooo… the amazon fourchan is now cooking the new human-defense polen? like in that shayamalan movie?

  12. Wouldn't it be interesting if there is a greater awareness that we can all connect to and you can share and obtain knowledge from it. Wouldn't it be interesting if Cannabis was the key to doing this. Wouldn't it be interesting if you can get information, years before the mainstream scientists discover it – only to have a Computer with built-in security flaws in the CPU so the monopoly-men can steal your intellectual property and claim it as their own. Wouldn't it be interesting if people realized we are all part of this greater awareness and thereby literally connected to each other; thereby it making sense to treat your neighbor as if they were yourself. Wouldn't it be interesting if the everything in this comment was based on reality.

  13. Couldn't the marked carbon isotope have been transfered from one tree to the other by aboveground processes?

  14. What if we can use the chemical impulses betwen plants and convert them to some kind of data? It sounds pretty sci-fi but we did it with dna… we would be able to actualy comunicate with plants, I wonder what my marijuana says about me…

  15. The idea of plants defending themselves used to be called mulching, now we call it permaculture. Then, companies like Monsanto brainwashed growers into being addicted to petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Any conversation about “How Fungi Help Plants Communicate” is not complete when you leave out the notion that SciShow and SciShow patrons, through their silence and complacency, allow greedy, soulless corporations to do these things.

  16. Much better question… how did all millennial woman independently and sporadically develop vocal fry's?

    Please solve this question SciShow

  17. Goes to show you how much advance nature is in relation to human's technological advancements.

    I do love technology in general, though I find nature more fascinating. If only we had the code to interact with nature… Kind of reminds me of Jame Cameron's Avatar.

    Not only understanding plants but other animals and learn from them as well.

  18. I came here expecting loads of people to say "it's not communication, it's passive and chemically "programmed" into them" and such which I kind of feel too, but woah internet, all the comments are pretty hilarious. Yay humans!

  19. Ive been saying this to my friends for about 8 years and half the time they think I'm crazy. Now science is backing me up. Much of nature becoms more understanding to me with each magic mushroom trip I do.

  20. "this was right beneath our noses for eons, but we had no clue"

    so actually this knowledge and many other "secrets" of plants and fungi have been well known to (and documented by) many ancient traditions, from shamanic to vedic cultures going back thousands of years. just because it wasn't discovered or known in the west doesn't mean it didn't exist 😊

  21. They got the mommy monicor from fantasy, myth and games called the mother tree, great trees that maintain the health of elven lands and prevent corruption to the forest and you just proved that plants attack unsuitable invaders.
    We knew of it its from our myths.

  22. The dying tree putting out it’s stored resources into the soil for any and all other plants to use… that is the most beautiful trait shared her. I hereby dub this “THE GIVING TREE EFFECT.”

  23. All living things are also connected. In one talk with the prophet Jeremiah, God told him, “the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying off because of the evil of man.”
    Our behavior impacts the environment around us.

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