Forest ecologists win NSERC grant to study how fungi restore pine forests

    Findings could result in pre-emptive strike against climate change

    By Helen Metella on March 21, 2016

    ALES forestry researchers eager to know how lodgepole pine forests can be more quickly restored after mortality from wildfires, mountain pine beetles or invasive plants, have received a significant grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

    Nadir Erbilgin, who is the Canada Research Chair in Forest Entomology and Chemical Ecology, was awarded $483,000 to lead a study examining whether the functional traits of three types of soil fungi growing together in lodgepole pine forests improve growth of new saplings after a disturbance.

    In particular, NSERC’s Strategic Partnership Grant, which funds collaboration between the universities of Alberta and British Columbia, and industry, will look at how the fungi changes as a community.

    “We have a fairly good idea of how certain groups of fungi respond to different disturbances but we don’t have an idea of how these groups change together,” said Jonathan Cale, a post-doctoral fellow with Erbilgin and project manager for the study.

    Knowing how fungal communities change in tandem after disturbances is important not only because lodgepole pine is one of Alberta’s dominant species, used for a variety of commodities including lumber, and pulp and paper, but also because climate change means disturbance patterns are becoming more aggressive.

    “Climate change is really going to tax the forest industry’s ability to manage forest regrowth, because we’re going to see an increased frequency and intensity of these events,” said Cale.

    Moreover, very few researchers have looked at cumulative disturbances.

    “If that forest stand has been hammered year after year, how does the soil fungal community respond?” Cale wondered.

    Individually, each of the three fungal groups being studied contributes quite differently to benefit young saplings. Mycorrhizal fungi grow right on the trees’ roots and their cells penetrate the root tissue to allow for an exchange of water and nutrients. Their biochemistry breaks down nutrients in the soil, unlocking them for saplings’ use. They also modify the resistance of the seedling to insects and diseases.

    Saprotrophic fungi break down dead organic matter, releasing them in a form the plant can use. And plant pathogenic fungi help reduce competition among a population of seedlings.

    To discover if there are collective changes in fungi functional traits after disturbances, the project will assess complete soil fungi communities in 50 different locations, spanning 10 different disturbance scenarios that have occurred throughout primarily northwestern Alberta within the past five years.

    “We’re going to look at fungal composition — which species are there, how abundant are they, is one dominant over the others?” said Cale.

    The researchers will also test whether they can remediate the soil fungal communities by adding soil from undisturbed areas to promote seedling development.

    In addition to researchers Justine Karst from the Department of Renewable Resources, James Cahill from the Department of Biological Sciences, and Suzanne Simard of the University of B.C.’s Department of Forest Sciences, the three-year project includes seven industry partners, among them forestry and newsprint companies and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.