Fungi, trees and global change

Scientists at Kew and Imperial College London are working with one of the world’s largest biomonitoring networks to find out what factors determine the structure of mycorrhizal fungal communities, and how they might respond to environmental change.

25 Nov 2010

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Monitoring mycorrhizal fungi

Filipa Cox and Adriano Spiccia take samples of mycorrhizal fungi (Image: Wolfgang Keilig)

Human activity drives massive environmental change in the carbon and nitrogen cycles that can modify biodiversity and ecosystem functions in temperate and boreal forests. Trees in these forests are dependent on mycorrhizal fungi, a group of symbiotic organisms that provide soil nutrients and water to tree roots in exchange for a supply of sugars. Changes in mycorrhizal communities are expected to alter the balance of forest functions, but the factors that control mycorrhizal distributions and diversity are little understood. Consequently, the role that global environmental change plays in altering mycorrhizal communities merits investigation.

Nitrogen pollution lowers mycorrhizal diversity

By focusing on large-scale environmental gradients, studies led by Filipa Cox (Kew & Imperial College London), with collaborators from one of the world’s largest biomonitoring networks (ICP Forests), aim to unveil the dominant processes that structure mycorrhizal fungal communities across Europe. Supported by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Forestry Commission, this work has so far found evidence that increasing nitrogen in soils is associated with a reduction in mycorrhizal fungal richness and changes in fungal community composition – a worrying trend in the face of predicted future increases and a globalisation of nitrogen pollution driven by human activities. In addition to the potential role of nitrogen, factors such as soil acidity, tree age, temperature and altitude were linked with changes in mycorrhizas across large geographic scales.

Future work hopes to expand further the scale of sampling, so that insights into the patterns and processes driving mycorrhizal communities at continental scales can be ascertained, predicted and managed.

Item from Dr Martin Bidartondo (Senior Lecturer, Imperial College London / Kew)

Article References:

Cox, F, Barsoum, N, Bidartondo, M.I., Børja, I, Lilleskov, E, Nilsson, L.O., Rautio, P, Tubby, K & Vesterdal, L. (2010). A leap forward in geographic scale for forest ectomycorrhizal fungi. Annals of Forest Science 67: 200.

Cox, F, Barsoum, N, Lilleskov, EA & Bidartondo, MI. (2010). Nitrogen availability is a primary determinant of conifer mycorrhizas across complex environmental gradients. Ecology Letters 13: 1103–1113.

Cox, F, Barsoum, N, Lilleskov, EA, Bidartondo, MI, Seidling, W. (2010) Mykorrhizierung von Kiefernwurzeln. AFZ-DerWald, in press.

Peay, KG, Bidartondo, MI & Arnold, AE. 2010. Not every fungus is everywhere: scaling to the biogeography of fungal-plant interactions across roots, shoots and ecosystems. New Phytologist 185: 878-882.

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