Plant roots grow towards soil fungi

Brassica rapa
© Wikimedia Commons (

Plant roots grow towards soil fungi

Kay Moisan's PhD research offers opportunities for plant protection

Plant roots not only release odours themselves, but also appear to react to odours released by beneficial and harmful fungi in the soil. They do this by actively growing towards the fungi, or ignoring them. In her PhD research at NIOO, Kay Moisan found that this 'sense of smell' has a positive effect on the eventual health of the plant, and that exposing plants to the right fungi could help protect them. Kay Moisan defended her PhD dissertation in Wageningen today.

Plant roots are fascinating organs because they are so essential to plant health. However, we do not know much yet about how they interact with soil microbes, and about which factors influence their growth.

Recent studies found that roots themselves perceive odours from soil microbes, which in turn can affect plant growth. For instance, odours that are released by bacteria and fungi can increase the branching and the size of plant roots affecting plant growth.

Kay Moisan / WUR
Kay Moisan

Growth direction

But what remained unknown was whether microbial odours mayalso affect the direction in which plant roots grow. In her dissertation and the accompanying publication in Plant, Cell & Environment, Kay Moisan and her co-authors - who include Jos Raaijmakers from NIOO, Moisan's co-promotor - demonstrate that this is indeed the case.

It appears that plants perceive the odours produced by soil fungi and react to them before they come into contact with the fungi. To demonstrate this, researchers developed a unique test set-up in which they grew turnip rape (Brassica rapa) seedlings in soil, and roots were "given the choice" to grow towards or away from odours of four different soil fungi.

The results show that roots ignored the odours emitted by certain fungi, but were attracted to odours emitted by other fungi. Interestingly, plants appear to be particularly attracted to odours emitted by a harmful fungus. Exposure of plant roots to these fungal odours influenced plant interactions with leaf-eating caterpillars and root-eating insects and nematodes (little worms), sometimes making plants less suitable food to these attackers.

Kay Moisan / WUR
Roots were "given the choice" to grow towards or away from odours of four different soil fungi

Plant protection

In the search for sustainable agricultural practices, odours from soil microbes are therefore promising candidates for plant protection and promotion. The findings also raise new follow-up questions about whether plants can actively "decide" what direction they grow and with which micro-organisms they should interact, or whether it is actually the fungus that attracts roots for its own benefit.

Moreover, the design of the research is a proof-of-concept that roots do respond to microbial odours. "The research has provided a new method for studying the chemical interaction between roots and soil fungi, and its influence on root growth. This innovative set-up can also be used by other laboratories to further investigate these interactions," says Moisan's promoter Prof. Marcel Dicke from Wageningen UR.