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Course cultivates relationships millions of years in the making

Not all fungal infections are bad for plants—in fact, some of them are critical for plant survival, according University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researchers.

The UF/IFAS Applications and Analyses of Mycorrhizal Associations course teaches participants how to harness the power of these beneficial fungi. Andy Ogram, professor of soil and water sciences, and Abid Al Agely, senior biological scientist, co-founded the course.

Mycorrhizal fungi live in the soil and have a symbiotic relationship with plants. “The fungi actually function like part of the root systems,” and can be cooperative with 90 percent of plants, said Ogram. This mutually beneficial relationship is called a mycorrhizal association and is technically an infection, though a positive one.

According to Al Agely, mycorrhizal fungi add organic matter to the soil and help the plant better access and absorb nutrients and water. The fungi can also protect plants from disease because “they physically will not let pathogens infect the plant,” he said.

All these advantages are particularly useful for those who want to grow organic crops. Al Agely and Ogram created a course that would show organic farmers and others how to use mycorrhizal associations to their advantage.

The annual three-day course is now in its 11th year. The course is popular among UF/IFAS Extension agents, farmers, and those in the soil amendment industry. People have come from all over the world to take the course, the researchers said.

Al Agely and Ogram wanted participants to get practical, hands-on experience with recognizing, culturing and using mycorrhizal fungi. By the end of the course, “They will be able to isolate the spores of the fungi and use those as fertilizer,” said Ogram. “They will also be able to determine the efficiency at which those spores make associations—are they working or not?”

Completing the course gives attendees both knowledge and credibility. Businesses who grow mycorrhizal fungi often send their employees take the course and become certified. “There are many products that claim to promote plant growth, and we wanted to make sure that good science was behind these amendments,” said Ogram.

Cynthia Thomas, a University of Florida College of Agricultural and Life Sciences alumna, attended the course in 2015 and said she learned a lot.

Thomas took the course because she wanted to experiment with new farming practices and possibly create an organic division within her family’s farm, Thomas Produce, which is located in Boca Raton, Florida.

After completing the course, she tried growing tomato transplants in soil containing mycorrhizal fungi. “They were the most beautiful transplants I’ve ever grown,” she said. In the fall, she will experiment with more crops and see how they compare to plants grown without the fungi.

Sally Scalera, the urban horticulture agent and Master Gardener coordinator for UF/IFAS Extension Brevard County, also came away with new insights. When it comes to assisting homeowners or creating outreach programs, “I’m talking about soil now before anything else,” she said.

“Most interesting and useful was the fact that St. Augustine grass has mycorrhizae that work with it. I’m passing that on to homeowners,” she added.

While the course is very practical in nature, Al Agely also wants people to come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of how much plants depend on these fungi. Mycorrhizal associations have been going on for millions of years and are a key part of plant evolution, he said.

The course is set for July 11 to 13, and registration closes June 1. For more information, go to the course web page.

UF/IFAS Department of Soil and Water Sciences Photo by Abid Al Agely

By: Samantha Grenrock, 352-294-3307, grenrosa@ufl.edu

Sources: Abid Al Agely, 352-294-3144, aaag@ufl.edu

Andy Ogram, 352-294-3138, aogram@ufl.edu

Sally Scalera, 321-633-1702 ext. 222, sasc@ufl.edu