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URC-professor Toby Kiers

The shrewd market traders in the soil

If you think that humans are bizarre with the careful manipulation of their complex financial economies, you may need to think again. Fungi can be just as calculating in trading their phosphorus resources to plant roots offering sugar commodities. Now that evolutionary biologist Toby Kiers has uncovered how this ancient, underground marketplace functions, she wants to manipulate the plant-fungal market to support sustainable agriculture. Ultimately her aim is to understand the social lives of microbes, testing how they form alliances and barter deals.

It was an incredible discovery. Evolutionary Biologist Toby Kiers (1976) revealed the refined ways in which fungi and plant roots in the soil apply the laws of supply and demand. “Fungi provide supplies of phosphorous and release them only to plants that offer the most sugar in return. It actually looks very much like a market economy. If we can get to the bottom of this, we will be able to create altruistic fungi that are more willing to help plants. Ideally it could reduce our dependence on artificial fertilizers.” If you think of evolution, the first thing that comes to mind is the competition between species: the survival of the fittest. But all around us organisms are engaged in intimate dances of cooperation and trading. From the billions of intestinal bacteria that power our guts to the birds and bees that pollinate our crops, we actually understand very little of how cooperative relationships evolve in nature.

Read full interview with Toby Kiers.

Toby Kiers gave her inaugural lecture on June 25, 2014.

Read more about Toby Kiers