Recently I was looking up plants that grew at high altitudes and learned about a moss that grew on Mt. Everest at an elevation of more than 6000 meters. It’s difficult to collect samples from plants that grow at these heights, but an organization called Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation helped set up a project where a mountain climber collected the moss and brought it back down for scientists to study. Survival at high altitudes where the temperature is cold, ultraviolet radiation is more intense, and the environment is dry can be difficult for plants, but it looks like the moss has been getting some help.
Plants frequently have fungal symbiotes that help them grow, and these symbiotes can help plants survive in harsh environments as well. In addition to tall mountains, symbiotes can also help plants survive in deserts, hot springs, glaciers, and other environments where conditions are extreme. The partnership between the plant and fungal symbiote can also keep the symbiote alive in environments where it would not be able to survive by itself.
This research could open up another field of agriculture. Symbiotes could provide an alternative to genetic modification and chemical-based fertilizer. And the moss symbiote research has resulted in the creation of a startup. Rusty Rodriguez teaches biology classes at the University of Washington and is the founder of Symbiogenics.
Basically, fungal symbiotes could be added to crop plants that are facing environmental stresses such as high temperatures, high salt levels, and drought. Symbiotes from wild plants could be used in commercial agriculture to make domesticated plants more resilient. This could result in higher yields and might be less expensive than adding fertilizer as well. Symbiogenics already tested this theory with cassava, a root crop which is used to make tapioca, and the fungal symbiote helped the plant grow more roots. This could also be important for renewable energy, since researchers have been working on the production of biofuel from cassava.
As for updates on the work at Symbiogenics, it looks like researchers from the company will be presenting at an event in Pendleton, Oregon on September 23. The topics include habitat restoration and making agriculture more sustainable. In a Scientific American article back in February, the CEO also mentioned the planned launch of a product, Bioensure, later in 2015. It doesn’t look like this product is out on the market yet, but 2015 isn’t over either.