Fungi in plants react to climate shifts

Credit: Betsy Arnold

In the far reaches of the world, stretching across North America, northern Europe, and Russia, there’s a vast and chilly realm of forests known as the boreal forests.

These forests, filled with towering spruce, pine, fir, and other trees, form the largest ecosystem on land and are the most northern forests on our planet.

Hidden within the leaves of these trees, and among the soft carpets of lichens and moss on the forest floor, there’s a tiny world of fungi that live inside the plants.

These fungi are called endophytes, and they have a special relationship with their plant hosts, often helping them stay healthy and strong against diseases and environmental challenges, like extreme heat.

Betsy Arnold, a plant science professor, has spent much of her career studying these fungi. She explains that for plants, living in harmony with fungi is crucial. These endophytes play a key role in plant health, yet we’re just beginning to understand how important they really are.

Over ten years ago, Arnold and her team embarked on a month-long journey into the wilderness of northeastern Canada. Their mission was to understand how these fungi adapt to their environment and how they might be affected by climate change.

What they discovered was a rich diversity of fungi, each adapted to its local conditions. This diversity suggests that as the climate changes, the health of these fungi—and by extension, the forests they inhabit—could be at risk.

Boreal forests play a vital role in our planet’s climate and water cycles, Arnold points out. Her research shows that these forests are home to a unique array of fungal endophytes, different from those found anywhere else in the world.

The journey to gather this data was no small feat. Arnold and her team flew in a floatplane to reach remote areas of the Canadian boreal forests, landing on lakes and collecting samples of tree leaves, mosses, and lichens.

They worked long hours, often into the early morning, preparing their samples for analysis back at their temporary lab. This intense fieldwork was crucial for understanding the diversity of fungi and how they’re distributed across different climates.

Their findings, published in the journal Current Biology, highlight the sensitivity of these fungi to climate changes. This sensitivity is a concern because the biodiversity of these forests, including the fungi, is crucial for the ecosystem’s health.

The team’s research suggests that to protect these forests, we need to consider the plants and their fungal partners together, rather than focusing on one or the other.

Arnold likens the relationship between plants and fungi to a form of natural research and development, where plants have evolved alongside their fungal partners to survive the harsh conditions of the north.

This co-evolution has led to a diverse range of fungi, each suited to different environmental challenges.

Looking ahead, Arnold hopes their research can lay the groundwork for future studies. As boreal forests face changes, understanding the role of fungi in plant health becomes even more critical.

Arnold is now applying this knowledge closer to home, in Arizona, exploring how local fungi can help crops withstand the challenges of limited water and rising temperatures.

The journey into the boreal forests was both challenging and exhilarating for Arnold and her colleagues. Their work underscores the importance of documenting biodiversity as our world changes.

The samples they collected will help scientists for years to come understand how species, ecosystems, and the climate are interconnected.

Arnold’s vision is clear: by understanding the intricate relationships between plants and fungi, we can find new ways to support life on our changing planet.

The research findings can be found in Current Biology.

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