The invisible superheroes inside plants

By Maria Constantin

Maybe you’ve heard about the one of the latest superheroes or better said “badheroes” movie called “Venom”. Venom is an alien that belongs to a species called “Symbiontes” which can inhabit living creatures conferring them superpowers. Plants have their own kind of Symbiontes living inside them. Scientists call them “endophytes” and just like Venom they can confer superpowers to the plant that they inhabit.

Figure 1. Venom the symbionte can colonize living creatures and confer superpowers to them.






Endo …what?

Before the 18th century scientists thought that healthy plants were sterile, and did not know that endophytes were living inside plants. The term “endophytae” was used for the first time in 1809 by the German botanist Heinrich Friedrich Link to describe a “distinct group of partly parasitic fungi living in plant”. Endophyte stands for “endo”= inside and “phytae”= plants and nowadays is basically used for all microorganisms that live inside plants without causing them any harm.

Which superpower would you choose?

Surprisingly, each type of bug has different “superpowers” that can confer specific benefits to plants they occupy.  Some endophytes such as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi live inside plant roots and help plants to capture nutrients. For the plant it is basically like having a roommate that cooks for you. Endophytes like Epichloë can grow inside the stem and leaves of grass and protect against chewing insects that would feed on the leaves. So, the plants have their own bodyguard protecting them from being eaten. Other endophytes like Fusarium can protect against plant disease, and in a way act as antibiotics.

Figure 2. Different Fusarium oxysporum endophytes growing on PDA plates.

Endophytes for the future

Due to the special superpower of endophytes and to new regulations against pesticides, fungicides and heavy fertilization, a lot of attention has turned towards the use of endophytes in agriculture. It may be that in the future, as a common practice instead of applying fungicides we could treat disease with the right endophyte. This already happened for the Dutch elm disease caused by the fungus Ophiosstoma ulmi. Instead of treating the trees from our park with fungicide, nowadays they are vaccinated with endophytic strains of Verticillium albo-atrum. Who may know, the future superheroes may be endophytes!

About the author

Maria Constantin is a Marie Curie PhD fellow, on the BestPass project at the University of Amsterdam. In her free time she enjoys chasing cats on the streets to pet them and doing experiments at home with her house plants. Check out her blog to see how you can isolate endophytes at home from your favourite plant.


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