Army of Tiny Fungi Keeps Forests Healthy, Study Suggests

November 21, 2005

Communities of microscopic fungi that live inside trees might help protect their hosts from disease and predators, new research suggests.

These fungi, called endophytes, are found throughout various types of plants from the roots to the leaves. Many different endophyte species can live together in a single plant.

"We really don't understand exactly what [endophytes] do," said fungi researcher Rebecca Ganley. "But we are slowly coming to understand how they might be involved in resistance, tolerance, and other ecological processes that go on in the plant."

Ganley works for Scion, a sustainable biomaterials development company based in Rotorua, New Zealand.

Before joining Scion, she conducted graduate research at the University of Idaho in Moscow that focused on harnessing the power of the tiny fungi to keep trees healthy.

Ganley's research suggested that trees with diverse communities of endophytes are more resistant to diseases, such as blister rust, than forests with fewer endophytes.

Blister rust has caused widespread deaths in several species of white pine, an important family of trees in the Pacific Northwest U.S.

Ganley also found that diversity among the fungi is greatest in native, old-growth forests and lowest in plantations and nurseries.

Small Fungus, Big Business

Ganley and her colleagues at Scion now hope to figure out which endophytes are important for disease resistance. They can then reintroduce the fungi to new forests, boosting the resistance of new trees to the spread of lethal diseases.

The researchers must first determine which endophytes live in which types of trees. "For most tree species, we don't know what's in the tree at all," Ganley said.

Then she and her colleagues want to figure out how the endophyte communities in the trees work together.

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