Mycorrhizal amelioration of heavy metals or pollutants is a process by which mycorrhizal fungi in a mutualistic relationship with plants can sequester toxic compounds from the environment, as a form of bioremediation.
These symbiotic relationships are generally between plants and arbuscular mycorrhizae in the Glomeromycota clade of fungi. Other types of fungi have been documented. For example, there is a case where zinc phytoextraction from willows was increased after the Basidiomycete fungus Paxillus involutus was inoculated in the soil.
Mechanisms of the symbiosis
The mycorrhizae allow the plants a greater tolerance of heavy metals in part due to the increase in biomass that they help them achieve. The fungi also stimulate uptake of heavy metals (such as manganese and cadmium) with the enzymes and organic acids (such as acetic acid and malic acid) that they excrete into their surroundings in order to digest them.
How mycorrhizae help plants tolerate heavy metals
The fungi can prevent heavy metals from traveling past the roots of the plant. They can also store heavy metals in their vacuoles. However, in some cases the fungi do not decrease the uptake of heavy metals by plants but increase their tolerance. In some cases this is by increasing the overall biomass of the plant so that there is a lower concentration of the metals. They can also modify the response of the plant to heavy metals at the level of plant transcription and translation.
Colonization of barren soil
Mycorrhizae remain functional underground following extreme conditions such as after a forest fire. Researchers believe that this allows them to obtain minerals and nutrients that are released during a fire before they are leached out of the soil. This likely increases the ability of a quick recovery after forest fires.
Serpentine soils are in part characterized by a low calcium-to-magnesium ratio. Studies indicate that arbuscular mycorrhiza help plants increase their magnesium uptake in soils with low amounts of magnesium. However, plants in serpentine soils inoculated with fungus either showed no effect in magnesium concentration or decreased magnesium uptake.
Resistance to toxicity
Studies show that mycorrhizal symbionts of poplar seedlings are capable of preventing heavy metals reaching vulnerable parts of the plant by keeping the toxins in the rhizosphere. Another study demonstrates that Arctostaphylos uva-ursi plants in symbiotic relationships were more resistant to toxins because the fungi helped the plants grow below toxic layers of soil.
Applied in bioremediation
In China's provinces Guizhou, Yunnan and Guangxi, rocky desertification is expanding and is not well controlled. This area is characterized by soil depletion, soil erosion and droughts. It is very difficult for plants to grow in this region and it mostly filled with drought-resistant plants, lithophytes and calciphilopteris plants. Morus alba commonly known as a mulberry is a drought resistant tree which can tolerate barren soils. It has been found that mulberry inoculated with arbuscular mycorrhiza has increased survivability in karst desert areas and therefore an increased rate of soil improvement and reduced erosion.
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