Fungal Spore Regenerates Forests

November 23, 2015

Illuminating data from Rim Fire

Sydney GlassmanAn extensive study by a UC Berkeley graduate student has found that a rich, fungal spore bank under the devastating Rim Fire two years ago remained intact and sparked the rebirth of new plants, trees and seedlings.

Spore bank fungi are adapted to disturbances to serve as partners for regenerating trees; there were even some fire-adapted fungi that increased in abundance following the blaze.

Sydney Glassman closely studied the Rim Fire of 2013, one of the most devastating blazes in California's history. It was the third largest fire in California history, burning 257,314 acres.

Glassman and her colleagues in Tom Bruns' lab in the Department of Plant & Microbial Biology had already been researching and observing long-term plant and fungal diversity in the area, and the symbiotic interplay between mycorrhizal fungi and trees. When the Rim Fire came along and destroyed their long-term study plots, Glassman took that opportunity to check the viability of the fungal spore bank just underneath the fire, and test the potential for rebirth.

She found that the forest floor was rich with nutrients which are now already rebuilding the forest environment. After severe fires, the intact layer of the ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungal spores survived and served as a partner for regenerating forest trees. Glassman and her co-researchers also discovered that there were specific fire-adapted fungi such as Rhizopogon olivaceotinctus that increased in abundance after the fire. The results of Glassman's paper were just published in the October, 2015 issue of ISME Journal, a multidisciplinary journal of microbial ecology.

Additional authors included Carrie R. Levine, Angela M. DiRocco, John J. Battles and Bruns. 

"It is important to know how our environment is responding to these catastrophic wildfires that are burning our landscape," Glassman said, especially following California's devastating spate of recent forest fires.

Even though a potentially disastrous El Niño is now on the horizon in California, the plants in the Rim Fire area are established enough that they will be able to thrive, said Bruns, a world-renowned expert on fungi. Erosion, however, could be a significant problem for the more recent fires of last summer if followed by the massive amounts of rainfall meteorologists are predicting.

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