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Fungus-enhanced plants popular with grasshoppers

MANHATTAN -- The prairie may appear to be a simple, rather plain scene at first glance. Gail Wilson knows better.

The tallgrass prairie teems with life. Fungi, plants and insects interact with each other in crucial ways scientists are trying to understand.

Wilson, a research associate in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University, David Hartnett, biology professor and director of the Konza Prairie Biological Station, and graduate student Abigail Kula, of Omaha, Neb., conducted a study showing that grasshoppers prefer plants with a fungal symbiosis. They are presenting the results of their study at the Ecological Society of America's annual meeting this week in Tucson, Ariz.

Fungi called mycorrhizae live in the root systems of nearly all land-based plants. The fungus is not dangerous. In fact, it gives nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen to the plant, while the plant feeds the fungus with life-giving carbon. The mutually beneficial relationship is called symbiosis. Plants in the tallgrass prairie will not grow without the fungus, which also help the plants live through drought and disease.

The researchers found that grasshoppers, which feed on plants, are more likely to be found on plants with mycorrhizal symbiosis. Wilson said grasshoppers may prefer those plants because they have more nutrients than plants without mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizal plants are also larger.

"Mycorrhizal plants are tolerant of damage and respond quickly to a moderate amount of grazing. We wanted to find out if grasshoppers favor mycorrhizal plants over plants without the symbiosis. The grasshoppers may prevent mycorrhizal plants from recovering if they cause more damage to these plants," Wilson said.

Wilson said the study brought prairie research closer to nature than previous studies, which have been conducted on single plant species. The K-State study was performed with a group of prairie plants grown together. The grasshoppers had
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Contact: Gail Wilson
gwtw@k-state.edu
785-532-2892
Kansas State University
5-Aug-2002


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