Can Fungi Save the Planet?

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Photo Courtesy of Sarah Brown

Daniela Laborinho Schwartz and Carolyn French

Contributing Writers

Climate change is often viewed through a hopeless lens. Environmental studies courses leave a poor taste in students’ mouths as they are fed information about a dark environmental future. However, there is hope to save our planet. President Joe Biden’s initial executive order to reenter the Paris climate agreement offers hope for Earth’s future at a macro level, but on a microbial level, exciting research also brings encouraging environmental news. The mutualistic relationship between woodland trees and microbial communities may serve as an optimistic story for the future of climate change.

A study by An Bui, Devyn Orr, Michelle Lepori-Bui, Kelli Konicek, Hillary S. Young, and Holly V. Moeller, published on Sep. 22, highlighted how soil fungi function differently depending on the climate regions. The study took place in California’s Tehachapi mountains and Tejon Ranch. It observed fungi in woodland settings and gauged how these communities could be impacted by climate change. 

The researchers sampled fungi in more stressful environments, like dry and warm conditions, and found that the fungi had a more diverse microbiome. Because the fungal communities in these arid settings were more abundant, the trees were more resilient to climate change. The ectomycorrhizal fungi improved nutrient absorption for the plant and the tree provided the fungi with energy, therefore creating a mutually beneficial relationship. 

Interestingly, in moderate conditions where soil fungi lived, the microorganisms are less stressed and did not have such a diverse microbiome. This finding gave scientists insight on the future of fungal communities’ ability to survive in a drier climate. Their survival may be essential to sustaining California woodlands. With less predictable weather conditions expected in the future, the increase of microbiome species around the trees is an indicator that these small species have an instrumental role in mitigating the impacts of climate change. 

“The analogy is sort of like people. You can’t function as an individual on your own. Like, you can cook and you can grow your own food and you can go for walks but that’s just survival,” Bui, the lead researcher in this study, said. “The trees and fungi are sort of the same way. I understand that’s like anthropomorphizing this relationship, but it’s really mutualism where trees get something from the fungi and fungi get something from the trees. So the survival of the tree is sort of dependent on the presence of the fungi.”

Bui, a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), has been studying ecology and community interactions for a few years. Before pursuing a master’s, she completed her undergraduate education at UCSB.  While her current research involves marine science, the impact of climate change on California’s woodland areas are especially important to her because she’s spent so much of her life growing up close to California’s forests. She had been studying the fungi interactions in the neighboring Tehachapi Mountains for over three years, so the positive conclusions were encouraging to her.  

Because the relationship between fungi and trees is so important, this finding offers a new perspective on the future of California’s woodlands. According to the paper’s abstract, as the climate changes the fungi will act as a buffer against the harshening weather conditions, which will benefit the whole ecosystem. Bui emphasized that a holistic approach is essential to understanding how ecosystems will be affected by climate change.

“If we want to understand how climate change is going to impact the environment we can’t just focus on the big, sort of exciting, interesting species like trees,” Bui said. “We also have to look at the small things that are associated with them. Fungi actually have a really big role in how trees survive.”

Bui’s research focused on small fungal communities, but it could have a large effect on forest management. Forest conservationist groups, such as the Sierra Club, could use these discoveries to consider taking a more holistic approach when addressing restoration and protection.

“Those [forest conservation] organizations are often really focused on trees specifically,” Bui said. “But what I’m hoping people get out of this is that the fungal communities that the trees are associated with are just as important. You can’t put a tree in without making sure that its mutualist partners are there because it just won’t survive.”

“If we want to understand how climate change is going to impact the environment we can’t just focus on the big, sort of exciting, interesting species like trees.”

The potential for microbial communities to act as a buffer for climate change on oak trees strays from the usual doom-and-gloom story told by environmental scientists. Bui’s research brings hope to the future of California woodlands and shows potential for a better understanding of how other plant ecosystems will react to climate change. 

“I think [less doom and gloom] is a possibility mostly because there’s so little that we know about microbial communities, so there could be an opportunity for more of these hopeful stories about ecosystem function being retained even when species communities are changing,” Bui said. “But I think it’s also possible to tell that same story with other species, like other plants, too. There is evidence that plant function is retained across climate gradients even though plant species are different.”

Lots of research has indicated the mutual benefits between fungi and plants. For instance, in a paper focusing on California’s chaparral ecosystem published in 2019 by V. Thomas Parker, he discussed the important role fungi play in aiding plants’ extraction of phosphorus. A paper published in April 2020 also overviewed the many functions of fungi in various environments and emphasized the need to further investigate plant-fungal interactions. This shows the growing understanding and interest in fungi relationships, and also that Bui is not alone in noticing the potential for this research. 

Nonetheless, for Bui, the frightening stories of climate change are important because they act as a huge motivator to take action against climate change. However, hopeful stories are an essential reminder that it is not too late for the health of the environments that have been altered by humans to be saved. There is still time for the damage to be fixed, which is a helpful reminder, Bui said.

Bui has now moved away from fungal ecology and is working within marine ecosystems. However, she has ideas about what direction her research should take. Future research will require experimental manipulation within labs.

“The next step for whoever wants to pursue it is to do an experiment where you actually manipulate the communities that are in the soil in these different environments to see if they’ll actually function in the same way or if they’ll diverge and function in a totally different way,” Bui said.

Bui’s research has shown that the future of climate change may be more hopeful than expected. With Biden in office implementing environmental policies and microbial communities hard at work in the California woodlands, there may be some hope for the planet after all.