Social networking in plants: biodiversity as a selective force for inter-plant signalling

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Earth Atmospheric and Env Sciences


There is now unequivocal evidence, mainly from laboratory experiments, that plants emit signals of insect herbivory that are detected by neighbouring plants. However, the significance of inter-plant signalling for ecological and evolutionary processes in nature is untested. Recent exciting findings have shown that plant to plant signalling occurs via common mycorrhizal networks (CMNs). Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relations on the roots of at least 80% of the world's plant species, and they frequently connect individual plants simultaneously, thus forming a CMN. In nature, the consequences of the costs and benefits of inter-plant signalling via CMNs in communities are likely affected by i) the specificity of the signals (and the plant's response to the signals) in relation to plant species and herbivore feeding type (i.e. whether it is a phloem sucking insect or a chewing insect), ii) mycorrhizal fungal species diversity, and iii) the degree of specialisation of insect herbivores. In this adventurous proposal, we test the hypotheses that CMN-based signals and the receiver plant's response to signals is dependent on the feeding guild and host specificity of the insect herbivore. Moreover, because many mycorrhizal fungi exhibit host preferences, we also hypothesise that greater mycorrhizal fungal diversity will lead to more patchy fungal networks and therefore decrease the proportion of receiver plants that respond to infested plants in the community. In addition, fungi may be less likely to pass warning signals to plants that harbour competing fungi than to plants that are colonised only by themselves. We predict that this would also result in mycorrhizal fungal diversity decreasing the proportion of receiver plants receiving or responding to signals from plants under attack. Finally, we predict that there are costs to receivers in responding to signals that also impact the functioning of mycorrhizal fungi, but overall there is net fitness benefit to the plants. Our multidisciplinary project builds on past and current NERC funded research and will lead to a major step-change in understanding of how plant and fungal biodiversity shapes inter-plant signalling, community dynamics and multi-trophic interactions in nature.

Planned Impact

1/ The outputs will be of interest to many academics and non-academics because the project is pushing forward the boundaries of our knowledge of a highly topical area (CMNs) and the new discovery of inter-plant warning signals. In addition, we deal with multitrophic interactions covering three taxonomic kingdoms;
2/ In addition, mathematical modellers, mycologists, invertebrate ecologists, agronomists, ecologists and biogeochemists will have specific interest in the responses that we will measure.
3/ A particular focus of this impact plan is to engage with the general public and local secondary school science teachers (see below).
4/ Additional stakeholders and end-users that we will target include horticultural organisations, landowners, conservation bodies, and learned societies. Engaging with this group is important because forest biodiversity conservation is an integral part of the Government's Biodiversity Strategy.

Understanding how invertebrate herbivores interact with plants, and how soil biodiversity can regulate these interactions will be of benefit to both professional and amateur horticulturalists because the discoveries may lead to new ways of managing plant pests.


10 25 50
Description We found that aphids affected the flow of carbon from plant shoots to root systems through the use of stable isotope tracer experiments. We are currently disentangling the role of aphid density on these fluxes and testing whether there is a predictable relationship between these two variables.

We collaborated with colleagues at Cardiff University to test novel measurements of electrical conductivity in extra-radical mycelium fo fungal hyphae. We postulated that electrical signals are incolved in signalling in hyphal networks. Our observations showed that electrical actiona potentials are generated by fungi, and we observed non-random bidirectional flow of molecules inside hyphae in response to stimulation of hyphae. Our findings have warranted development of a new grant application.

We have also shown that grassland plants do not respond positively to formation fo common mycorrhizal networks, in eother extensively or intensively managed fields. This work is being written-up for publication.
Exploitation Route -We managed to generate some interesting data that have and are being published. We also are writing an application to Leverhulme Trust to expand on the mechanisms by which mycorrhizal fungi signal through fungal networks
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description Glasgow University 
Organisation University of Glasgow
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Collaboration on experiments and ideas
Collaborator Contribution Collaboration on experiments and ideas
Impact none
Start Year 2018
Description Marcel van der Heijden 
Organisation Agroscope
Country Switzerland 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We have discussed methodological issues related to the project, discussion of additional experiments, and also experiments separate from the aims of the grant
Collaborator Contribution Provision of materials and expertise; ideas for new experiments including use of experimental facilities
Impact multidisciplinary: plant science, crop science, mycology
Start Year 2017
Description BBC Radio Four discussion 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Took part in the BBC Radio 4 programme "In Our Time" hosted by Lord Melvyn Bragg. This reaches an audience of around 2M and we discussed "Fungi" with a particular emphasis on the roles of their hyphae, which directly relates to the NERC grant
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Public Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to the Cheshire Wildlife Trust on mycorrhizal fungi
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Science X 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A free, interactive festival of exploration and experiments and a great chance for kids to discover the fun behind science and engineering!
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019