The idea of plants having a sense of fair play might seem a little odd.
But University of Zurich researchers have found that plants seem to have rules that govern their relationship with mycorrhizal fungi which attach to their to root systems and obtain carbohydrates to feed themselves, while supplying the plants with phosphates, a type of chemical that contains the nutrient phosphorus.
PHOTOS: Mind-Boggling, Mysterious Fungi
In a study published in Ecology Letters, the scientists report that plants actually use those varying rewards to compel fungi to compete against one another. The plants reward fungi that provide plants with a bigger amount of phosphates, and penalize "meaner" ones that are more stingy.
"The plant can deliberately decide to provide the meaner partner with fewer carbohydrates," in an effort to force it to provide the phosphates that the plant needs, ecologists Pascal Niklaus and Bernhard Schmid explained in a press release.
Another of the co-authors, Andres Wiemken from the University of Basel, said that a plant will exploit the competition between two fungi, "triggering what is essentially a market-based process determined by cost and performance."
NEWS: Newly-Created Fungus is Part Human, Part Yeast
But both the plant and the fungi need each other. Mycorrhizal fungi aren't able to feed themselves, so the organisms use filament structures called hyphae to penetrate the plant's root system, and suck up carbohydrates provided by the plant. But the plant also benefits from this arrangement, because the fungi provide phosphates and other nutrients - natural fertilizers that are important for plant growth.
The discovery that plants have a decision-making process based upon behavior of other players is important, the researchers say, because it provides a natural system that could be used by economists to study and test market-based theories.
"Because plants make their decisions based on physiological processes and are not distracted from the best course of action by subjective thought, they could even be better models than animals and people," Schmid explained.