Toby Kiers awarded Vici grant for research on fungal networks

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam’s evolutionary biologist Toby Kiers has been awarded a Vici grant worth 1.5 million euros. This personal grant, awarded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO), is intended for her research into how fungi take decisions when trading nutrients with their host plants. The question is how these organisms, which do not have brains, process and share information in their complex networks in such a way that they can carry out the right trading strategies.

04/14/2021 | 9:00 AM

In the coming five years, Toby Kiers’ research team will identify and analyse the network structure of fungi, using a custom made imaging robot. This robot will enable the researchers to measure and study the movements of nutrients and electrical currents in fungi. The team comprises researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics (AMOLF) and will also collaborate with Utrecht University and universities in the US and Switzerland.

Underground marketplaces
In her earlier work, Kiers demonstrated and visualized how mycorrhizal fungi use advanced trading strategies to maximize their yields. The fungal networks in the ground exchange nutrients with plant roots. They form underground marketplaces to trade nutrients that they collect from the soil for carbon from the roots of plants. The researchers used nanoparticles and video tracking to show how fungi actively move sources over networks to areas where demand is high to achieve better returns from hosts. Kiers gave a fascinating explanation of this research in a Tedtalk in Mumbai in 2019.

“People underestimate how sophisticated fungi are”

Alternative methods for processing information
How do fungi take these decisions? Animals rely on a central nervous system to take decisions, including trade decisions, but fungi do not have a central nervous system. Kiers: “People underestimate how sophisticated fungi are.” Historically speaking, scientists have had a very limited view of how information is processed and shared. By concentrating solely on the nervous system and the role of the brain, we ignore the enormous diversity of alternative methods organisms, such as fungi, use to store and process information.”

Relevant for agriculture
Not only does this research explain complex behaviour in organisms that do not have a central nervous system, it also teaches us more about economic principles and gives us answers to questions that could be relevant for human societies and, for example, our agriculture. Kiers: “Plant roots transfer carbon to fungal networks. We want to investigate how fungi store carbon and move it, under different conditions, so that we can make predictions about carbon storage under the ground. We also want to look into how host plants influence the nutrient flows of their fungal symbionts and whether this can be manipulated to benefit crops. This would, of course, be of interest to growers.”

Networks in the picture
The research will be carried out in the laboratory, where plant roots and fungi will be cultivated in petri dishes. Fluorescent labelled nutrients will be followed using video analysis to determine how fungi optimize trade routes to transfer nutrients. Kiers: “We will be using the same high-resolution equipment that neurophysiologists use to study electrical pulses in neural networks.” The team will also be using x-ray scans to create 3D reconstructions of plant-fungi networks, to examine how the complexity of networks influences the productivity of plants. In time, the fungal trade routes will be identified and analysed using an automated imaging robot that can make time-lapse videos of intact networks.

Vici grant
Along with Veni and Vidi grants, Vici funding forms part of NWO’s Talent Programme. It is intended for highly experienced researchers who have successfully demonstrated an ability to develop their own innovative lines of research and who can act as coaches for young researchers. The funding offers researchers an opportunity to build their own research groups, often in anticipation of a structural position as full professor. A total of 33 leading scientists will each receive 1.5 million euros from NWO.