A Tale From The Mycorrhizosphere

 

For arts and science practice to be sustainable, I really think that the art needs to feedback into the science more than it does at the moment. It needs to invigorate science and push scientists out of their comfort zones.  This is a little, but beautiful of example of what can happen when the two cultures are integrated into a seamless whole.

Mycorrhizal fungi have occurred naturally in the soil for at least 450 million years, forming a close symbiotic relationship with plant roots. Plants and these mycorrhizal fungi operate as a single working unit in nature in which the plant performs photosynthesis, and the fungi facilitate underground nutrition-gathering and also protect the roots. In fact, nearly all plants on earth rely on mycorrhizal fungi for nutrients and moisture, with many plants being extremely dependent on, and surviving poorly without such beneficial fungi.

I am currently working with these fungi in the lab, but I could equally well being doing this in my own kitchen, given that everything I’m using can be purchased at a supermarket. I’m exploring these organisms as an artist would and purely out of a sense of curiosity, something that is nearly impossible to do in the context of science funding in the UK at the moment. Also I wish to share the wonder of the microbiological world. One of the things, I’ve found out is that many of the fungi that compromise the mycorrhizosphere produce fluorescent pigments, that is when exposed to UV light they glow in a variety of bright and beautiful colours (see MycoChromes). I am now exploring the aesthetics of this.

MycoChromes. Brightly coloured flourescent pigments produced by mycorrhizal fungi

MycoChromes. Brightly coloured flourescent pigments produced by mycorrhizal fungi

 

The other accidental, and more important finding concerns the way that the mycorrhizal fungi interact with each other. The image of the Petri dish (View From The Top) shows mould colonies growing on agar, but it’s only when the plate is turned over and viewed from the bottom that something remarkable is revealed (View From The Bottom). The large central mould colony has encountered another mould species at the bottom of the plate, and only in the area close to the point of contact between the two species, is producing a bright red pigment. Thus, the larger mould has recognised the presence of the smaller mould and is responding by producing a coloured compound. This discovery is born more out of art than science but it may be far reaching. It shows a hitherto unknown interaction between the soil mycorrhizae, the scientific examination of which might lead to novel sensors for fungi and the identification of novel compounds powerful antifungal properties.

View from the top. Colonies of   mycorrhizal fungi  growing on agar.

View from the top. Colonies of mycorrhizal fungi growing on agar.

View from the bottom. The red zone of pigmentation shows two moulds interacting with each other

View from the bottom. The red zone of pigmentation shows two moulds interacting with each other

 

3 thoughts on “A Tale From The Mycorrhizosphere

  1. Just a word of caution: Some of those fluorescent compounds may be quite toxic. If you have some Aspergillis or Emericella on your plates, there’s a good chance those compounds are in the aflatoxin family of natural products, which are highly carcinogenic. I’m certain you’re not ingesting anything from your plates, but I’ve seen your experiments with textiles and bacterial pigments, and I’d urge not to go down that road with fungi.

    • Thanks for the advice! For a brief time, Maurice Moss was a work colleague of mine and he did at lot of work with alflatoxins. I’ve no plans to take these out of the microbiology lab. The moulds are all from a commercial mycorrhizae product that you can buy from supermarkets. It’d be quite concerning if there were alflatoxin producing moulds in these preparations given that they’d be handled by the public with no protection. Thanks again, Simon

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