Through our Underground Explorers Program, we collaborate with researchers and local communities to map mycorrhizal fungal networks in their home ecosystems.
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The Underground Explorers Program provides local researchers with grants to fund their research expenses as they sample soil ecosystems for fungal DNA in underexplored regions across the world.
Our first round of 11 Underground Explorers winners were announced in January, 2023, and represent 11 different countries across 6 different continents.
The boreal forests of Mongolia are on the southern edge of the Taiga and form a transition to the forest-steppe biome. The forests are composed of mainly Siberian larch (Larix sibirica), Siberian pine (Pinus sibirica), Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), Japanese white pine (Betula platyphylla) and Siberian spruce (Picea obovate), and experience extremely low winter temperatures with deep soil freezing, and are strongly limited by precipitation.
There are few published investigations of ectomycorrhizal communities in Mongolian forests, however it is known from investigations in other biomes that some of the tree genera have narrow range ectomycorrhizal taxa. In this project we will investigated the ectomycorrhizal communities in mixed and single species forests of in the Bogd Khan protected area, in Umnudelger, Binder soum, Khentii province, and in the Burkhan Khaldun World Heritage Site. Whereas the Bogd Khan protected area is close to Ulaanbaatar, the Burkhan Khaldun World Heritage Site is a remote pristine area. At these sites, we will collect soils and fine roots, and assess the ectomycorrhizal community in soils using metagenomics. The ectomycorrhizal community on fine roots will be assessed by morphotyping the ectomycorrhizas, and the final identification using DNA sequences. We predict and in these extreme conditions a number of unique ectomycorrhizal taxa will be identified. The project will be carried out at the Mongolian University of Life Sciences, and at the Institute of Forest Ecology at BOKU, Vienna.
Mount Mabu, Mozambique
Tropical forest ecosystems retain the highest levels of biodiversity, fact that makes them great contributors to Earth’s total biodiversity. Mount Mabu is a mountain located in the north of Mozambique of approximately 1700 meters covering roughly more than 7000 hectares. It is estimated that mount Mabu is the largest medium-altitude rain forest in Africa, encompassing diverse wildlife, unknown to scientists. To date, only the vegetation of the lower slopes in the south-eastern has been described – woodland, forest, and scrub/sedge patches on bare rock, remaining the rest unknown. The mycorrhizal fungi, a very important group of soil microorganisms, are present in many habitats but knowledge regarding their presence in tropical regions is still scarce. Their community structures is diverse between mountains at different altitudes, especially in tropical rainforests, so, it is expected that mount Mabu, as an unexplored forest, could represent a hotspot for many species including soil microorganisms such as the mycorrhizal fungi. To address this, sampling, collaborative efforts and use of molecular methodologies are encouraged. Our project intend to sample and isolate AMF using morphological and molecular techniques and lastly attempt to cultivate it in laboratory.
Plant-fungal interactions, such as mycorrhizal symbiosis, are major determinants of plant biogeographic range size, population dynamics and plant community composition. In tropical forest ecosystems of oceanic islands, native and endemic plant communities tend to be replaced by introduced and invasive plant communities resulting in significant changes in the overstory, understory and forest floor. However, in these regions of the world, the impact of biological invasions on soil fungal biodiversity is poorly documented. In this project, we propose to (1) conduct a molecular inventory of soil fungi in the rainforests of Mo'orea, one of the high islands of French Polynesia and (2) assess the impact of the invasive plants Miconia calvescens and Spathodea campanulata on these fungal communities.
The taxonomic inventory of fungal species will be based on high-throughput sequencing techniques of ribosomal DNA (metabarcoding). It will be conducted on DNA extracted from the soils of the high altitude rainforest called "cloud forest" and in the low altitude mesophilic forest on an experimental site listed as a natural area of ecological and heritage interest (ENIEP of Opunohu). The aim is to evaluate the impact of biotic factors (e.g. presence of invasive plants) and abiotic factors (e.g. level of precipitation) on the composition and richness of soil fungi communities (saprotrophs and mycorrhizal symbiotics).A better knowledge of fungal communities in forest soils and endemic tree roots should inform us on the effects of fungal microbial communities on the vulnerability and resilience of tropical rainforests to plant invasions, in a context of climate change.
Nourou S. Yorou
The project aims at producing high quality data on the diversity and abondance of soil mycobiome in Cacao plantations of Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast (West African) is the largest cocoa (Theobroma cacao) producer in the world with three production regions (East, Centre-Western, and the South-Western). Cacao plantation are subject to different management regimes, including agroforestry systems in the vicinity of natural dense forests. We hypothesized that plantations under long term management regime (old plantations) have an altered structure of soil mycobiome that has led to a decrease in the diversity of soil fungi. Three different management regimes (+ natural forests) from four sites of the ongoing CacaoSAF project (Alliance Bioversity - CIAT), will be considered. At each of the 14 sampling sites, composite soil cores and fine roots will be sampled from a total of 10 cacao trees and from most dominant tree in the dense forests. Mycorrhizal dependence and AMF spores’ identification and density will be performed at the University of Parakou in Benin. Doubled of soil samples will be shipped to the Swedish Agricultural University for metabarcoding (NGS). Semi-structured interviews will be conducted with the farmers of the CacaoSAF tool project to collect information about the age of the plantation, the management regime, productivity over time and the natural forest. For each sample we will fill the metadata form. At the end of the project, the farmers of the CacaoSAF project can appreciate how their management practices affect soil mycobiome. Partner scientists from the Institute National Polytechnique Félix Houphouët-Boigny will benefit from molecular data and the identification of AMF of the cocoa trees in Ivory Coast. We expect to generate at least one paper in peer-reviewed applied ecological journal or in organisms’ diversity journals. Generated sequence data will be shared with the CacaoSAF tool developed by the Alliance Bioversity-CIAT, as well as on international accessible platforms.
Aida Marcela Vasco
Amazon forest of Colombia
The Amazon Region has a large number of ecosystems, which house a high biotic diversity. It is considered a hotspot for soil fungi and protects a high level of fungal endemism (Tedersoo et al. 2014, 2022). The project intends to study soil fungal communities, including arbuscular mycorrhizae and ectomycorrhizae, at three contrasting and distant points in the Colombian Amazon, which will allow us to learn more about the distribution patterns of soil fungal communities, and in particularly mycorrhizae. In addition to studying white-sand forests and terra firme forests, alluvial plain or várzea forests will be included, which have not yet been studied.
Uruguay is part of the temperate subhumid grasslands in the eastern part of South America. Our territory is described as Campos within Biome Pampa according to physiognomic, geomorphologic, and edaphic features. This region shows year-round photosynthetic activity and represents one of the world's most diverse, largest, and less transformed grassland areas. Despite their apparent physiognomic homogeneity, these grasslands hold high species diversity, having grasses as the dominant life form except for a few scattered shrubs and trees. Actually, Uruguay lost 10% of its pastures. A regional mapping work of the Pampa biome (Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay) shows the reduction of the grassland ecosystem over two decades. Our country's main driver of pasture losses was agriculture, followed by forestry and invasive plants.
It is widely recognized the key role of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) in terrestrial ecosystems, as they regulate nutrient and carbon cycles influencing soil structure, plant community, and ecosystem multifunctionality. The role of mycorrhizal symbiosis has been usually related to its impact on the plant mineral nutrition However, it has been demonstrated that this symbiotic process has a key role in ecosystem stability and restauration. AMF is a mutualistic microorganism that links biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems, mediating plant competition and nutrient distribution. Our question is, within Campos, which factors are driving and modulating AMF biodiversity? Four sites representing conserved grasslands will be sampled; we will combine different approaches to understanding AMF diversity by looking at the links between AMF and plant community structure, geochemistry, and soil microbial community interactions.
Three hypotheses are proposed: (1) AMF diversity is affected by soil type, and physicochemical environmental conditions; (2) AMF diversity responds to changes in above-ground plant community diversity; and (3) AMF diversity is affected by the interactions with soil microbial communities (fungi and bacteria) that coexist in the same site.
During this project, motivation to local communities will be through seminars and talks. Local communities, especially students from rural schools, could keep the plant communities under observation within passive conservation and restoration mini-projects aimed to involve them in a change of mind about soil health and below- and above-ground biodiversity.
The goal of this project is to understand whether non-native invasive plants are able to successfully displace native congeners by interacting with their native obligate symbionts: ectomycorrhizal fungi. The project will take place in the eastern region of Patagonia, Argentina, a steppe ecosystem, dominated by xerophytic herbaceous and shrubby plants. Even when the steppe is the dominant ecosystem in the southern cone of South America, belowground studies in Patagonia drylands are underrepresented compared to Andean temperate forests. We will sample soil under native and non-native invasive riparian populations of Salix spp. (willows). These tree species are the only ectomycorrhizal hosts in this habitat, which constitutes the limit of their southern distribution, where mutualisms are expected to be key for their establishment and survival. Studying whether invasive plant species can interact with native fungi and the potential changes in the native fungal community driven by invasions, will shed light into previously overlooked belowground impacts of plant invasions in the steppe and open new management possibilities, helping to prevent economic and biodiversity losses. We will actively work with local stakeholders, the private sector, and local and native communities, increasing the awareness of the fungal component of invasions and encouraging them to get involved in the idea that fungi can also be invasive and that we need to protect native funga from degradation.
Roshan B. Ojha
Nepal is a country with abrupt elevation gradient, ranges from 50 to 8848 meters above sea level, towards the North resulting in contrasting climate and habitat formation. This change in elevation and climate allows diverse habitat formation and floral and faunal diversity vary greatly across the regions. Furthermore, In the East-west gradient, the precipitation patterns greatly vary in the country. In the monsoon season (June-Aug), heavy precipitation occurs in the Eastern regions and the western region receives less rainfall. In the winter season, the Western region receives more rainfall than the Eastern region. However, the total rainfall in the winter season is lesser than monsoon season. This creates a different soil moisture regime in East-West regions. Therefore, elevation and climate gradient towards the North and precipitation gradient towards East-West make Nepal rich in floral and faunal (aboveground) biodiversity hotspots, however, soil (belowground) biodiversity hotspots are yet to be determined. We assume the change in elevation gradient and habitat types altered the soil biodiversity. Soil sampling across elevation, climate, and precipitation gradient will help us to elucidate the diverse soil flora and faunal diversity. We will also have an opportunity to understand and assess the soil biodiversity in higher elevation zones, which is unique to Nepalese landscapes. Currently, we are collecting soil samples (voluntarily) from each of the physiographic areas. We only have three paired sites for this assessment. We followed the Soil Biodiversity Network (SoilBON) protocols to collect, prepare, store, and ship the samples. These sites broadly cover the soil biodiversity status of Nepal but are limited to covering all habitat types towards North-South and East-West regions. Therefore, we would like to extend our sampling sites from 3-paired sites to additional 18-paired sites and the results will contribute directly to the sample pool of SoilBON.
This is an interdisciplinary nationwide project with more than 30 scientists from UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico). It is part of the University Program of Interdisciplinary Soil Studies (PUEIS) Developed primarily at the Institute of Biology, Institute of Ecology, Faculty of Sciences, and Faculty of Higher Education of Iztacala.
The soil constitutes the ecological interface that harbors the greatest biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems. Soil regulates global biogeochemical cycles, supports biological diversity, activity, and productivity, and provides the nutrients necessary for plant growth. A conserved soil is a biodiverse soil maintaining ecological functions such as microbial activity, carbon and nitrogen mineralization, and enzymatic activity. Despite the importance of soil this resource is not renewable, and its conservation is threatened by mismanagement and the lack of effective communication strategies about it. In Mexico, 45% of the territory has degraded soils, which means that they have lost the ability to maintain their ecological function, their biodiversity, and their productivity. Part of the problem is the lack of data and information on biodiversity and soil function in large geographic areas of Mexico to strengthen decision-making aimed at its sustainable management.
The Atlas of Mexico’s Soil Biodiversity have three guiding principles (Research, Teaching and Society Outreach), each with the following objective. Research – To generate frontier knowledge using public biodiversity databases, collaboration networks and the most modern DNA sequencing technologies to produce the greatest possible amount of knowledge in the shortest time and at the lowest cost. Teaching – To generate learning elements for high school, undergraduate and postgraduate levels to promote knowledge of life in Mexican soils and the need to protect this non-renewable resource. Outreach – To create an interface for data display and analysis to provide information to decision makers that promote friendly management practices with soil diversity, as well as programs for its conservation and monitoring.
The idea of our project within SPUN is to provide evidence of root mycobiome biodiversity around monumental trees forming the backbone of East Carpathian Biosphere Reserve. Polish NGOs have provided us with GPS coordinates of 3675 ‘monumental trees’ which should be considered as the ‘hot spots’ of the region, but still are being logged there at an alarming rate.
We intend to support the initiative to include this priceless sites in the Bieszczady National Park. Therefore, we want to share the scientific data with the activist and artistic communities in Poland to speak more loudly about the importance of forest mycorrhizal networks.
Humboldt reported that tropical plant species richness decreased with increasing elevation and decreasing temperature. Tropical regions harbor the majority of the world’s biodiversity, surprisingly, patterns in plant and fungal diversity on tropical mountains have not yet been described. Alexander von Humboldt ascended the Chimborazo, Antisana and Pichincha volcanos in Ecuador. He recorded the distribution of plant species and vegetation zones along its slopes and in surrounding parts of the Andes. We propose to follow the steps of those three Humbold´s expedition, following an Andean transect traversing 3.5 to 5 km in elevation (equivalent to a 6.5°–26.4°C mean annual temperature range) to test whether the soil fungal species, particularity mycorrhiza, diversity and composition follow similar biogeographical patterns with shared environmental drivers. This will be done for the first time in Ecuador. With the help of historical records of Humboldt's Expedition.