Research Matters

Research Matters

Conifer roots and fungi

Andrew Schwendemann has discovered a more ancient connection between specialized plant root structures ‹ called nodules ‹ and fungi than had been known previously. The KU researcher described a mutually beneficial relationship whereby a fungus lives safely in a conifer¹s root and extends into the soil, bringing the tree nutrients it wouldn¹t get otherwise.

Episode #102

2 minutes (3.7 MB) | Download mp3


A student scientist uncovers an ancient link between plants and fungi in Antarctica. From the University of Kansas, this is Research Matters. I’m Brendan Lynch.

One might think that a doctoral student of ancient plants would lead a ho-hum existence. Not so. KU graduate student Andrew Schwendemann has traveled to the ends of the Earth to locate Antarctic rocks offering a glimpse back millions of years into the evolution of plants and fungi.

Schwendemann: It’s a big ordeal. We flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, to get outfitted with cold-weather gear. From there, we take a C-17 and land on a glacier on the edge of Antarctica. Then we had to go through survival school at the main U.S. base at McMurdo. Next, we flew out to our base camp, which was halfway between the coast and the South Pole. Every morning, helicopters would fly us out to the sites where we wanted to collect, and they’d pick us up at the end of the day.

In the Antarctic wilderness, Schwendemann hunted for primeval rocks, called silicified peat, known to contain fossilized conifers and other plants, for later analysis.

Schwendemann: We get these big bocks of silicified peat back into our lab and then we use a diamond-bladed slaw to slash through them like a loaf of bread. Then, we dip it in hydrofluoric acid that destroys the minerals, but not the plant parts. So we’ll have these 240-million-year-old plant walls and they’ll stick up in relief. Then we put acetone on the rock surface itself, and apply a plastic sheet. The acetone dissolves the plastic at first. After a while, the acetone evaporates and the plastic sheet hardens again.

Schwendemann discovered an older connection between specialized root structures — called nodules — and fungi than had been known previously, work that landed him lead authorship of an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Schwendemann: Basically there’s a little sphere of root tissue coming off of the main axis which the fungi lives in. It’s thought that maybe this nodule allows the fungus to live during really harsh condition where a fungus that didn’t have this special structure would have died.

For more on conifer roots and fungi, log on to Research Matters dot KU dot EDU. For the University of Kansas, I’m Brendan Lynch.

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