UBC Community and Partners Publications

Wood Wide Web 2008

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18 May 2006 K C Y M Docket no.: 1127 Version no: 2 Client : UBC Research Date: 2005 April 03 Item: Frontier magazine Size: 8.5x11.75 inches Logos: repro Photos: fpo Line Screen: 150 line Fonts: DIN, A Garamond Pro Proofed by: gq All trapping is the respon pre-press company outp 19May 2006 K C Y M Docket no.: 1127 Version no: 2 Client : UBC Research Date: 2005 April 03 Item: Frontier magazine Size: 8.5x11.75 inches Logos: repro Photos: fpo Line Screen: 150 line Fonts: DIN, A Garamond Pro Proofed by: gq sibility of the printer/ utting fi nal fi lm/plates. Trying to observe the fungi in their habitats is diffi  cult. To meet this challenge, Jones and her colleagues have created what she describes as a window on the underground world: “Soil is very diffi  cult to study — as soon as you put a shovel in it to dig it up, you’ve disturbed it. So we’ve installed Plexi- glas root windows into the soil. Th ey start at the soil surface and go down vertically about a metre, with a small trap door that allows us access to the soil. Within a year or two, roots grow against the window and we can study their physiology in situ. Th at’s the in- novative part of what we’re doing: studying the function of roots and hyphae in intact soil in the fi eld. Th is is essential for under- standing what mycorrhizal fungi do for trees. You can culture some of these fungi in the lab but microorganisms turn on diff erent genes depending on their environment. Th at means that their physiology in a Petrie dish in the lab may be very diff erent from their physiology on a root in the soil.” Using the windows allows Jones to create precise experiments to measure the interac- tion between the soil and the fungi. Her particular research focus is a process in which the fungi excrete hydrolytic enzymes, which break down the organic material in the soil and release nutrients for the roots of plants, including trees. In one type of experiment, research associate Shufu Dong places special chromatography paper between the Plexiglas and the soil. Th e chemicals embedded in the paper change colour when they come into contact with soil enzymes, and the results have confounded some expectations: some of the enzyme activities are higher around non-mycorrhizal roots than mycorrhizal roots. In order to determine why enzyme activity in one tiny patch of soil diff ers from another patch, graduate student Denise Brooks is taking samples of soil smaller than one cubic centimetre from locations on the soil face that show lots of enzyme activity as well as from locations that look the same but show no enzyme activity. She will extract fungal DNA to fi gure out whether the activity is associated with specifi c mycorrhizal or decomposer hyphae. Th rough her work on the fungi and the soil, Jones hopes to further our understand- ing of how forests function. Her goal is supporting the long-term sustainability of the forest, whether it’s in terms of silviculture, recovery after wildfi re or climate change. Durall is particularly focused on learning how the fungi benefi t the establishment of plants after disturbances, either natural ones such as forest fi res or anthropogenic ones such as clear-cuts. His research is of great interest to the forestry industry, which wants to get a clear-cut site back to a stage called “free to grow,” defi ned as the fi rst stage of growth establishment when trees are about chest height. But Durall’s interests run well past the free to grow stage; in one study, graduate student Brendan Twieg compares sites fi ve years after clear-cutting to sites 25 years after clear-cutting. His studies also show that, as far as mycorrhizal fungi are concerned, it appears there’s not much diff erence between clear-cuts and fi res — although he’s quick to point out that the mycorrhiza fungi are only part of the whole picture. Two years ago, a CFI grant of $2.2 million led to the creation of the Species at Risk and Habitat Studies Centre, which was offi  cially opened at UBC Okanagan in March 2006. Th ere, Durall, Jones and their colleagues can pursue their research goals using state-of- the-art equipment. Th is has enabled Durall to investigate the genetics of the fungi.“I’m interested in comparing the fungi that are on the roots of neighbouring plants and asking whether the fungi are the same individual. And if they are the same individual there’s a high likelihood that the root systems are connected by a shared mycelium. The molecular approach is the only practical way of determining this because we can’t trace the fi laments through the soil.” Th e work of Durall, Jones, their students and collaborators has the potential to revolutionize our notion of the forest and the trees. Th e result is a better picture of the forest community and a greater understanding of our impact upon it. As Durall says, “Above ground, the trees appear to be separate; you need to get your below-ground glasses on.” IT’S ESTIMATED THAT THERE ARE 10,000 DISTINCT SPECIES OF MYCORRHIZAL FUNGI. Walk in the forests of British Columbia and the trees loom large. It can be hard, as they say, to see the forest for the trees, each of which appears to be a separate entity. But Melanie Jones and Daniel Durall, associate professors of biology at UBC Okanagan, have a diff erent view of the forest. To them, the trees are joined together in a functional community. Th ey get this picture because they’re not looking up at the treetops — they’re looking down, underneath the ground. What they see has been described as the “wood wide web,” in which trees are connected to each other through the soil by the fungi that live on their roots. Durall and Jones have been studying the role that fungi play in the forest for over a decade. Back in 1997, they collaborated on an article that was published in the journal Nature that was based on the Ph.D. thesis research of Suzanne Simard, who is now a professor at UBC Vancouver. Th e article has since been cited more than 250 times. And their work on the extraordinary collaboration between trees and fungi continues today. Th ese fungi, known as mycorrhizal fungi, are not parasites on the trees’ roots; rather, they are mutualistic, providing the tree with nutrients while taking in the carbon produced by the trees’ photosynthesis. Tracing the carbon makes it possible to track the movement of the fungi themselves. As Durall describes it, “We use radioactivity as a tracer to look at the movement of carbon compounds from one plant to another plant … and there are indications that the mycorrhizal fungi are facilitating this movement. We don’t know if the fungi transport the carbon entirely within their hyphae from one root system to the next, or whether some travels through the soil. So some of the work we’re doing today is getting at exactly how the fungi mediate the movement of carbon from one plant to another plant.” It’s estimated that there are 10,000 distinct species of mycorrhizal fungi. By researching which kinds of fungi appear in a forest after it has been clear-cut, and comparing that to the fungi present in an uncut forest, it’s possible to determine how this vast group of fungi changes and then recovers after logging. For example, research shows that if a mix of trees are planted, there will be diff erent kinds of fungi than if just one kind of tree were planted. MELANIE JONES AND DAN DURALL PEER DEEP INTO THE SOIL FOR CLUES ON HOW FUNGI ARE ESSENTIAL TO RENEWING OUR FORESTS Durall and Jones have received support for their work from CFI, NSERC and the BC Forest Science Program. WoodWideWeb


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