Endophytic Insect-Parasitic Fungi Translocate Nitrogen Directly from Insects to Plants

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Science  22 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6088, pp. 1576-1577
DOI: 10.1126/science.1222289

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Plants That Eat Animals

Apart from some spectacular exceptions, such as pitcher plants and Venus fly traps, most plants are thought to acquire nitrogen passively from microbial decomposition and the activities of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Metarhizium species are common endophytes—fungi that live within plant tissues without causing disease. This genus is also found ubiquitously in soil, where they parasitize insects. In a series of microcosm experiments, Behie et al. (p. 1576) investigated whether these fungi could couple their endophytic life-styles with their parasitic modes and be a conduit by which plants could obtain nitrogen from animals. Radio-labeled moth larvae were added to the microcosms in which bean and grass plants were grown, and when the larvae were inoculated with fungi, it was only a matter of days before the nitrogen label was detected in the plants.


Most plants obtain nitrogen through nitrogen-fixing bacteria and microbial decomposition of plant and animal material. Many vascular plants are able to form close symbiotic associations with endophytic fungi. Metarhizium is a common plant endophyte found in a large number of ecosystems. This abundant soil fungus is also a pathogen to a large number of insects, which are a source of nitrogen. It is possible that the endophytic capability and insect pathogenicity of Metarhizium are coupled to provide an active method of nitrogen transfer to plant hosts via fungal mycelia. We used soil microcosms to test the ability of M. robertsii to translocate insect-derived nitrogen to plants. Insects were injected with 15N-labeled nitrogen, and we tracked the incorporation of 15N into amino acids in two plant species, haricot bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), in the presence of M. robertsii. These findings are evidence that active nitrogen acquisition by plants in this tripartite interaction may play a larger role in soil nitrogen cycling than previously thought.

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