"As we work to save the vital whitebark pine from disappearing from the landscape, it is essential to use all available tools. Ectomycorrhizal fungi are an integral part of forest integrity, ecology and health; showing respect for these mighty microbes might just mean the difference between the restoration and death of a forest."
Dr. Cathy L. Cripps is an associate professor at Montana State University
Somewhere a Monsanto Research & Development Chief just fell off a chair
|Ghost forest of whitebark pine “skeletons.” Credit: Dr. Cathy L. Cripps|
WHITEBARK PINE FORESTS IN PERIL
"Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is North America’s only stone pine — pines with seeds that are not dispersed by wind — and it is primarily limited to the Pacific Northwest and the north-central Rocky Mountains. This five-needle pine is considered a keystone species at treeline elevations where other conifers have difficulty surviving. At these high elevations, it forms magnificent forests of gnarled old growth trees or low-tangled krummholz forms. However, whitebark pine populations are diminishing at an alarming rate because of record infestations of mountain pine beetles coupled with the devastating effects of the invasive white pine blister rust. The results are ghost forests of whitebark pine skeletons. The species has been granted endangered status in Canada and awaits this designation in the United States. Enormous efforts are underway to restore lost forests with large plantings of disease-resistant nursery-grown whitebark pine seedlings. But, can we also retrieve all the complex parts of this unique ecosystem? And what about the mycorrhizal fungi — how crucial are they to the survival of these forests?"
A COMPLEX ECOLOGY
"Above ground, the ecology of whitebark pine forests is a fascinating story of the interaction of trees, birds, squirrels and bears. In fall, when the round purple cones mature, the forests erupt in a riot of sound and a flurry of activity. Clark’s nutcrackers, large gray corvid birds with long bills, attract each other to the ripening food source with their raucous calls. Landing precariously in tree tops, they incise seeds out of cones like surgeons and gulp them into their crops. They fly off to bury their treasure as a food stash. Meanwhile, red squirrels chatter high above trying to beat the birds to the cones by clipping and dropping whole branches — an efficient way to gather a winter’s cone supply. Later, as winter approaches, grizzly and black bears raid the squirrel stashes for the fatty seeds. In spring, seedlings germinate in clusters from the un-retrieved seeds and, remarkably, this is the main dispersal mechanism for whitebark pine as a species; it depends on the forgetfulness of the birds."
"What goes on below ground is more of a mystery. Here, a major portion of the trees exist as extensive and massive roots systems that push through hard soil in harsh high-elevation habitats just below treeline. This is the interface between the living and non-living world. It is a dark place where pale, living roots come into contact with minerals in the soil — or do they?"
|Credit: Dr. Cathy L. Cripps.|
How ectomycorrhizal fungi works (Click to Enlarge)
"In a twist of nature, certain mycorrhizal fungi insert themselves between tree roots and soil to form a protective barrier around each root tip. In addition, the fungi boost the uptake of nitrogen into roots by extending their long thin bodies into the soil where they forage for scarce nutrients. The microscopic threads that comprise their bodies are called hyphae — or, when in mass, mycelium — and they act as conduits, moving nutrients and water from soil into roots. These fungi can also protect tree roots from heavy metals, tiny invertebrate grazers, and root pathogens hiding in the soil. The fungi themselves are able to eke out a living on photosynthetic scraps, sugars that leak from fine roots."
"‘Mycorr-’ means fungus and ‘-rhizal’ means root and the unions of these two entities, called mycorrhizae, are found on the roots of more than 80 percent of the plant species on Earth. This mutualism is not the exception, but the rule in nature, and all forests — except perhaps those of mangroves — depend on mycorrhizal fungi. This has been true for thousands of years."
"The group of fungi that attach themselves to woody plants, mostly trees, wrap themselves around the outside of roots to form what are called ectomycorrhizae. These tiny sock-like structures are found on each of the thousands of root tips throughout a forest. Although miniscule, ectomycorrhizae have a huge impact on the survival of trees, many of which could not maintain themselves in nature, especially in harsh climates, without these fungi. They are only visible when they reproduce and their fruiting bodies (i.e. mushrooms) push up though the soil to produce the spores that fly off in the wind to land, mate and continue the species’ life cycle."
NO TWO FUNGI ARE ALIKE
|Credit: Dr. Cathy L. Cripps|
Siberian slippery Jack (Suillus sibiricus)
ectomycorrhizal with whitebark pine
"Just as each tree species is not interchangeable with another, so too one fungal species cannot be substituted for another without altering the biology of an ecosystem. There are thousands of species of ectomycorrhizal fungi in the world, each with its own unique ecology, physiology, and preference for certain tree hosts."
"As an example, Cenococcum is a tough hardy fungus with dense black mycelium that is found everywhere, often at low levels just below the radar. But it comes into its own during periods of drought, when it thrives while other fungi die, all the while passing the benefits of drought tolerance on to its tree partner. Another example is Piloderma, a promiscuous fungus that attaches itself to many different tree species; it not only gains sugars from tree roots but also has the ability to decompose dead organic material and pass the nutrients along to living trees. Its bright yellow mycelium can be observed in rotting wood or organically rich soils as well as on roots. Douglas-fir alone associates with more than 2,000 different species of ectomycorrhizal fungi, and some are only found with this species. A single tree in a forest can host any number of ectomycorrhizal fungi simultaneously, with each providing its own unique set of benefits. Often, there is a succession of fungi found on a tree over its lifetime. Certain ectomycorrhizal fungi are important in a tree’s establishment as a seedling, and other fungi come in later to provide benefits in mature forest situations."
FUNGAL ALLIES OF WHITEBARK PINE
|Credit: Dr. Cathy L. Cripps|
Slippery jacks are also part of the forest food
chain. These were nibbled by a small animal
"Until recently, we knew very little about ectomycorrhizal fungi in whitebark pine forests. Our mycology lab at Montana State University (MSU) has discovered that from the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) north into Alberta, these forests appear to host only a limited number of ectomycorrhizal species in great contrast to Douglas-fir forests. Some of these fungi are specialists and are only found with five-needle pines; some only occur with stone pines. There are several species of stone pines scattered throughout Europe and Asia, in addition to the whitebark pines of North America."
"A well-known fungal inhabitant of stone pine forests in Europe (P. cembra forests) and Asia (P. pumila forests) is the so-called Siberian slippery jack (Suillus sibiricus). Remarkably, this fungus also occurs with five-needle pines in western North America, and we now report it from most of the whitebark pine forests studied in the GYA. These records show that the Siberian Suillus has a long evolutionary history with stone pines in the northern hemisphere that may be an indication of its importance to these pines; it does not occur with other conifers or on two/three-needle pines. Other examples of specialists with whitebark pine include S. tomentosus variety discolor and S. subalpinus; the latter is only known from the Yellowstone region. A variety of mammals, large and small, devour the mushrooms produced by these fungi as a natural part of the forest food chain."
"Other special ectomycorrhizal fungi found in whitebark pine forests include Rhizopogon, commonly called “pogies.” These interesting fungi spend their whole life underground. Instead of mushrooms, they produce subterranean tuber-like fruiting bodies often called false truffles. These marble- to golf-ball-sized tubers have unique odors that attract squirrels, voles, deer and bears — including grizzlies — which sniff them out and dig them up as a food source. When ripe, these pogies can smell intriguingly musky, fermented fruity or sour — even like blue cheese. The spores located inside the pogies are capable of traveling through the digestive tract of a mammal unharmed and are eventually deposited in pellets and piles. In a sense, these fungi have co-opted mammals as their spore dispersal mechanism just as whitebark pines have co-opted birds to disperse their seeds. Ultimately, the spores germinate and reunite with a root to form an ectomycorrhizal bond after passing through the gut of a mammal. When greasy scat samples of grizzly bears were brought into the MSU lab, examination with a microscope revealed a mass of one kind of spore. The bears had feasted exclusively on one particular kind of pogie, no doubt with a very attractive odor!"
"Coming full circle, while we see whitebark pines providing habitat for the animals that eat or spread its seeds and rest or nest in boughs and shade for the understory plants that proliferate at their base, there are even more intricate ecological relationships among these organisms, including the ectomycorrhizal fungi that help maintain the forests."
MISSING PIECE IN RESTORATION HARDWARE
|Credit: Dr. Cathy L. Cripps|
Roots of an inoculated seedling covered
"Are these fungi a missing piece of the puzzle in whitebark pine restoration? Can they be used to jumpstart the whitebark pine seedlings being planted in such huge numbers to help a greater number survive?
In Austria, forests on steep slopes were clear-cut to extend pastureland many years ago. Subsequent efforts were made to restore these forests which included the planting of European stone pine seedlings, a practice that continues today. Fifty years ago, a wise mycologist named Meinhard Moser discovered that adding the spores or mycelium of Suillus sibiricus (and related species) to nursery seedlings could significantly boost the survival of these nursery seedlings when they were out-planted. Today, mature forests are flourishing on the alpine slopes of Austria and the Siberian Suillus is still used on the stone pine seedlings in the Austrian Federal Nursery. Inoculation of nursery trees with ectomycorrhizal fungi is now status quo in Europe."
|Credit: Dr. Cathy L. Cripps|
Lonergan monitoring whitebark pine
seedlings in the field.
"At MSU, graduate student Erin Lonergan and postdoc Dr. Eva Grimme examined how this practice might be applied to nurseries in the western United States. From their research, we now know that S. sibiricus can form ectomycorrhizae efficiently on whitebark pine seedlings in the greenhouse and that colonization will occur if given enough time (a few months) and if a low nitrogen fertilizer is used. High nitrogen fertilizers and fungicides prevent mycorrhizal colonization. The age of the whitebark pine seedlings at inoculation is also important since prolific side roots need to develop before colonization can take place. When successful, hundreds of tiny, white sock-like ectomycorrhizae can be observed on the roots of containerized seedlings."
|Credit: Don Bachman|
Cripps inoculating whitebark pine seedlings
Believe it or not this is why biotechs refuse to actually replicate what nature does. They take their cue from off lousy lame arguments such as poor design arguments. They belie nature is flawed and poorly designed and only they can fix it. How well has that worked out for us and Nature ? The culture of science types are loathed to criticize industrial science (especially genetic modification) because they fear that aweful backlash of being labeled as anti-science, which is a Biotech's cowardly way of justifying their business model. Incredible all of this points back to Darwin and his writings. He actually started the bad design arguments. Here's an examples below given to us by none other than Richard Dawkins.
The above photo of a Tomato Hornworm caterpillar being victimized by the eggs of the wasp larvae, overlaid with Charles Darwin's famous 1860 "wasp feeding quote", which worked to teeter him away from a belief in a creator. Such examples of the supposedly bad designs which exist in nature have been utilized by people like Richard Dawkins, who admixtured in "selfish genes" + "Hamilton rule" + "blind forces", and used these Nature flaws as his main atheism movement to promote a purposeless universe ideology. But this has actually back fired on nature. How much good viable science and sustainable ecological technological innovation has been stifled because a handful of ideologues have a hard on towards Christensom ? Look, I get the argument against many of the religious institutions, but these people like Dawkins have stolen their playbook and made it their own with a plethora of failed their own version of blind faith Teleological arguments that have back fired on our natural world. The main problem has been when scientists and other researchers cannot explain something, the problem must lay with the flaws of natural design and not their own university cultivated intellectual ignorance. This is why they came up with Junk DNA as a label for the non-coding DNA. They didn't know what it did, could not find a useful function for it's presence and therefore concluded it must be a vestigial evolutionary hold over from the distant mythical past. It was touted as proof of evolution and no intelligent designer. But lo & behold geneticists are finding a wealth of instructions when all this imaginary *cough-cough* Junk apparently does have function when used within a context of other genes. This has become more and more to do with epigenetics or different gene expression triggered by various environmental cues. Now there is this big movement towards promoting biomimetics or biomimicry. Suddenly people who've for years dismissed this practice are now on board. However, to be taken seriously, they must first apologize to mankind for holding back good science and running our planet into the ground with their own unsustainable inept technological innovation based on nature being inept at designing anything. As yet they have refused to do this. Janine Benyus is one example. She won't touch this subject of bad design with a ten foot pole.
The reason designs found in Nature are seriously being more considered now is that Scientists are now realizing too late that they have no choice but to consider these remarkable designs found throughout all of the Earth's ecosystems because their own degenerate past ideologically driven science has been wrong all along. This is not to say there have not been dedicated Scientists out there over the last few decades who have been working hard all along to discover and create practical application of what they have observed and learned out in the field. I know because I've been following many of them for decades. What has always influenced the direction Science takes in research for decades has always been it's being shackled to their sources of funding that comes from big industrial agri-business interests. It is even worse now because Scientists who desire major funding for their pet projects must tow the corporate line or risk having their funding removed.
This has actually happened to my former Agricultural Instructor who retired early from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He had a course on Sustainable Agriculture and apparently it was this class which he was teaching with regards to ecological and more sustainable farming practices which were found to be offensive to an Executive of an Industrial scale Feedlot business (Harris Ranch Beef) interest over in the San Joaquin Valley who threatened Cal Poly San Luis Obispo by withholding a certain promise of $500,000 in Grant Funding towards a new Butchering facility if he wasn't fired and his Sustainable Agriculture course dismantled. Also, at this same time period, they were peeved by a Campus visit of Michael Pollan who they also viewed as a radical or agricultural heretic.
Unlike my Ag Instructor, the man I quoted at the beginning of this post below the photograph with the dead whitewashed skeletons of Whitebark Pines was Edward O. Wilson a Harvard Biologist who wrote the book, "Diversity of Life" from which the quote was taken Unfortunately, Mr E.O. Wilson has gone down a much different road than my Ag Instructor. Here is that quote once more:
“Most life on land depends ultimately on one relationship: the mycorrhiza, the intimate and mutually dependent coexistence of fungi and the roots systems of plants.”He is also an environmentalist of sorts and has many radical ideas such as giving back half of the Earth to Nature again. He just seems so committed to Nature in that quote doesn't he ? Unfortunately it would seem that Mr E.O. Wilson has other commitments as well. I can almost agree with that sentiment of giving back much of the land to Nature, since I despise most cities and prefer the quiet solitude of Natural surroundings anyway. Unfortunately, I also read an interview he had done in "EarthSky Journal" in December 2011, where he was asked his views on what scientific advances in biology he sees advancing into the 21st Century. Unbelievably, this is what this same man said who wrote that environmental book and the quote about about how we should use Nature's Tool-Kit for maintaining living systems.
"And within science, this is going to be a century of biology. We are entering an age of synthesis. So many discoveries have been made in biology in the cell, at the molecular level, and on up to the development of organisms."
"And we need all the biology and all the advances we can find in agriculture, especially. We’re going to have to switch worldwide to dry land agriculture. We don’t have enough water in enough countries to feed all those people and to restore soil to arable condition. So this means that we have to have genetically modified organisms. I’d take that as a given. Some people don’t like the idea. But that’s one of those necessities brought about by the human condition."
|Image credit: Jim Harrison|
Fortunately, researchers like Dr Cathy Cripps are looking at a more natural holistic approach in replicating Nature as it really works. In the decades past I was always told by government experts that it was not necessary to inoculate the nursery stock before out planting. Why they said, "those mycorrhizal spores were everywhere in nature. Why those spores are floating around us in the very air we breathe." Fortunately I never listened to and bought into their theory and have proof to show for it. When you look at the above ground surface and see that many plants within almost every ecosystem around the globe are failing now days, don't you think that what lives underground may also itself be failing as well ? Nothing anymore is indestructible. Every living thing today is at risk. So maybe the microbiological activity under the ground needs a boost to. When humans destroy Earth's ecosystems as rapidly as they have during the past 100+ years of enlightenment, we don't have thousands of years to wait and see if it can heal itself or not. Clearly things need a push and helping hand. For the moment, California is getting what is considered a rescue of another El Nino rainy season of sorts. In my own experience, it has always been these small windows of exceptional wet periods of when Nature can spring back the best and humans can help it to further heal if they know the exact tools and how to use them. But we are finding that these system mechanisms are now breaking down and need help and a jump start. Mycorrhizal Fungi and Beneficial Bacteria can performance enhance that recovery if those in charge are humble enough to admit they have been making mistakes for the past 100+ years and will make a 360 degree turn around and start working with Nature instead of against it. Now go back and read Dr Cathy Cripps' research again, and then go seek out advice on a reputable Mycorrhizal promoting website and order the right blend of material for inoculation of your own trees and shrubs. Maybe your own restoration project. And dump the we don't have to inoculate dogma, because yes you do.
There is no mysticism here. You want successful landscaping, farming or gardening then you have to inoculate. The only mystic fantasy here is that the human leadership that people have allowed to be put in charge of land management has been a miserable failure. Using Nature's Tool-Kit by learning to identify and use the right mechanisms will lead to many many success stories.
Further Reading references
The Agricultural Controversy