Trading nitrogen for carbon: Nitrogen and carbon translocation in a plant/fungal (Metarhizium spp.) symbiosis
While nitrogen is critical for all plants, they are unable to utilize organically bound nitrogen in soils. Therefore, the majority of plants obtain useable nitrogen through nitrogen fixing bacteria and the microbial decomposition of organic matter. In the majority of cases, symbiotic microorganisms directly furnish plant roots with inorganic forms of nitrogen. More than 80% of all land plants form intimate symbiotic relationships with root colonizing fungi. These common plant/fungal interactions have been defined largely through nutrient exchange, where the plant receives limiting soil nutrients, such as nitrogen, in exchange for plant derived carbon. Fungal endophytes are common plant colonizers. A number of these fungal species have a dual life cycle, meaning that they are not solely plant colonizers, but also saprophytes, insect pathogens, or plant pathogens. By using 15N labeled, Metarhizium infected, wax moth larvae (Galleria mellonella) in soil microcosms, I demonstrated that the common endophytic, insect pathogenic fungi Metarhizium spp. are able to infect living soil borne insects, and subsequently colonize plant roots and furnish ts plant host with useable, insect-derived nitrogen. In addition, I showed that another ecologically important, endophytic, insect pathogenic fungi, Beauveria bassiana, is able to transfer insect-derived nitrogen to its plant host. I demonstrated that these relationships between various plant species and endophytic, insect pathogenic fungi help to improve overall plant health. By using 13C-labeled CO2, added to airtight plant growth chambers, coupled with nuclear magnetic resosnance spectroscopy, I was able to track the movement of carbon from the atmosphere, into the plant, and finally into the root colonized fungal biomass. This indicates that Metarhizium exists in a symbiotic partnership with plants, where insect nitrogen is exchanged for plant carbon. Overall these studies provide the first evidence of nutrient exchange between an insect pathogenic fungus and plants, a relationship that has potentially useful implications on plant primary production, soil health, and overall ecosystem stability.