K. E. Clemmensen, A. Bahr, O. Ovaskainen, A. Dahlberg, A. Ekblad, H. Wallander, J. Stenlid, R. D. Finlay, D. A. Wardle, B. D. Lindahl. Roots and Associated Fungi Drive Long-Term Carbon Sequestration in Boreal Forest. 2013. Science. Vol. 339 no. 6127 pp. 1615-1618. DOI:10.1126/science.1231923
One of the most important developments in plant ecology over the last 20 or so years is the inclusion of belowground interactions with fungi into traditional studies of plant diversity, productivity, and ecosystem functions. Results like those from van der Heijden (1998)--which showed experimentally that the assumed link between ecosystem function and plant diversity was actually driven by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal diversity (through their effects on plant communities)—must alter how we see plant community dynamics. Not only does this reinforce the importance of complexity in ecology, but more specifically it suggests that if fungi are a necessary component of plant community identity and function, they must be explicitly considered in management and conservation plans.
For example, an important current issue is the question of which ecosystems will be carbon sinks as part of a focus on atmospheric CO2 levels. Understanding the mechanisms by which carbon is stored is therefore an important topic. Boreal forests sequester net amounts of carbon in soil and it is generally assumed that this is as a result of plant litter and organic matter accumulating in soil. Clemmensen et al. (2013) examined soil chronosequences for forested islands in Sweden to test whether this hypothesis held. These islands differed in the frequency of fire occurrences, between large and frequently burnt islands and smaller, infrequently burnt islands.
The authors identified the age since fixation of C found in the chronosequences and used models of C source to look at the relative contribution of the two possible processes: either fixation of C through aboveground plant litter or below-ground inputs through root-associated fungi. Carbon input tended to be higher on the small islands that were burnt less often, and this was associated entirely with root-derived input. Further, DNA barcoding showed that on these small islands, there were mycorrhizal fungi associated with the soil depths where the root-derived inputs were occurring. On islands which burned more frequently, and had lower carbon input, fungi were absent at these depths (figure below). This difference in fungal profile was related to the fact that infrequently burnt islands had older mycelium with low turnover, hence greater carbon sequestration.
|From Clemmensen et al (2013). A) Fungal functional groups associated with soil depths on large, frequently burnt islands (panel 1) and small, infrequently burnt islands (panel 2).|
The authors convincingly show that, at least in some ecosystems, the view that decomposition of litter primarily drives humus accumulation (and the accompanying carbon sequestration) must be tempered with the knowledge that organic layers also accumulate from below by roots and root-associated fungi. This suggests that there is a need to consider fungal communities as well as plant communities for when managing forests and making inventories of global carbon stores. And probably a need to consider fungi much more often in general.