In a warming forest, fungi may be key to trees' survival

Fungi exist as mushrooms on the forest floor, but they also populate the world beneath the soil surface.
By Brooks Hays  |  July 20, 2015 at 12:47 PM
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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz., July 20 (UPI) -- Most climate scientists and ecologists expect a warming climate to bolster drought conditions in places around the world. The question is: Will trees be able to adapt? And if so, how?

Researchers at Northern Arizona University are studying what they believe will be one the keys to the survival of trees vulnerable to hot, dry conditions -- fungus.

In the human gut, communities of microorganisms work to digest food, as well as regulate the immune system and ward off harmful invaders. Microbiota in the soil may be equally important to tree health, but even less understood.

"Every tissue of a plant that you look at has fungi inside of it, and we are trying to figure out what they do and if they are going to be important for allowing plants to survive climate change," Catherine Gehring, a researcher at Northern Arizona, said in press release.

Gehring became interested in the role of fungi in tree health while studying pinyon-juniper woodlands in northern Arizona. She noticed that trees that had developed insect tolerance were actually less able to survive long periods of drought.

It turned out, in developing a resistance to insects, the trees forewent an important group of fungi.

"That group of trees had 60 percent mortality, and the group susceptible to insects had only 20 percent mortality," Gehring said.

In exchange for sugar produced by the trees' photosynthesis, the fungi -- which attaches itself to the underside of the pinyon -- bolster the trees' root systems with extra water and nutrients derived from the soil.

When offspring from the two types of pinyon were raised in a controlled lab environment, both grew to the same size. But when drought conditions were manufactured, the fungi-rich offspring grew larger.

Gehring and her colleagues are working to better understand these fungi, and how they might help trees adapt as the climate continues to warm.

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