Mycorrhizal fungi and the mutualistic niche

Does mycorrhizal symbiosis determine the climate niche for Populus as a bioenergy feedstock?

While microbes have long been viewed as agents of disease, recent explorations of the microbiome have led biologists to recognize that beneficial microbes play an equally vital role in maintaining the health of plants and animals. Perhaps the most ubiquitous form of beneficial interaction in terrestrial ecosystems occurs between fungi and plant roots. These fungus-root, or “mycorrhizal”, symbioses involve the reciprocal exchange of plant sugars for soil nutrients obtained by the fungus, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, which are critical for plant growth. It is known that mycorrhizal associations are widespread, occurring in over 90% of plants, and diverse, with single plants associating with over 100 species of fungi. Despite this, the ecological factors that control the distribution and abundance of mycorrhizal symbioses are still poorly known, making it challenging to predict how mycorrhizal symbioses may change in future climate conditions or how these fungal communities might be manipulated to improve agriculture or forestry.  This research project uses a native North American tree with strong biofuel potential – Populus – to answer fundamental questions about the role of climate, soil environment, and mycorrhizal interactions in determining growth and competition in plant communities.  Populus provides a unique opportunity for ecologically relevant experiments because of its widespread distribution across North America and its natural variability in mycorrhizal association types.

This project is funded by Early Career Award DE-SC0016097 from the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science.