Ethereal New Plant Species does not use photosynthesis

Shrouded in the shadows of the enchanting Asian forests, strange plants can be seen peeking through the leaf litter, like the ghosts of long-dead flowers.

The plant’s foliage lacks green pigment, having abandoned photosynthesis in favor of an alternative source of nutrients in the forest, which has been stolen by fungi many other plants consider friends – the symbiotic mycorrhizae that bind most forest plants into a woody web.

Widely found throughout East and Southeast Asia, from the Himalayas to Japan, Monotropastrum humble it was thought to be a single species. Now researchers from Japan and Taiwan have discovered a shade of pink that is being labeled as a unique species in its own right, a species they’ve named Monotropastrum kirishimense.

Wood tissues – incredible networks of fungi and plant roots that span entire forests – act as highways for the distribution of nutrients as well as wires for the transfer of information between plants via electrical and chemical signals. These connections help strengthen a forest as a whole by distributing resources from nutrient-poor areas of the network. They also allow plants to warn each other of predators and even protect them from drought.

In return for these services, plants pay their fungal allies some of the hydrocarbons they produce using photosynthesis.

But Monotropastrum betrays this mutualism by stealing all its nutrients from the fungi, without offering any photosynthetic products to the network in return – making them part of a very selective mycoheterotrophic club.

Three photos of the pink new species and three of the white known species
The new species (top) and M. humble (bottom). (Suetsugu et al., J Plant Res2022).

The most distinctive feature of the newly described Japanese variety is the pink petals and blushing sepals, but there are other differences, the researchers note.

Unlike their cousin M. humble, the roots of the newly discovered plant barely protrude from the ground. They are also more strongly associated with one Russula mycorrhizal genealogy, whereas M. humble favors a completely different variety of fungi.

Moreover, despite the fact that they grow next to each other, M. kirishimense’s the flowering period does not coincide with his M. humble, blooms 40 days after the best-known species. This study of these life cycle interactions and between wildlife and natural forces on earth, such as the seasons, is called phenology.

“Multifaceted evidence leads us to conclude that this taxon is morphologically, phenologically, phylogenetically, and ecologically distinct, and therefore should be recognized as a separate species,” conclude their paper, ecologist Kenji Suetsugu and his colleagues from the University Kobe.

“Our study presents the exciting possibility that a host can shift M. kirishimensetowards a specific one Russula genealogy, triggered ecological speciation’.

Their different flowering seasons ensure they share the main pollinator, the bee Bombus diversusit cannot accidentally give one species the pollen of another, preventing hybridization.

Many of the world’s forests are threatened as well Monotropastrum Species based in old growth forests, these strange plants are also vulnerable to extinction. M. kirishimense it is rare and researchers suspect it may be endangered.

The new factory was described in Journal of Plant Research.

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