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Dormant ancient fungi could help trees adapt to climate change, study says

A new study from the University of British Columbia Okanagan says ancient dormant fungi could help modern tree species adapt to climate change.

Biology professor Jason Pither, co-author of the study published in the June 2017 issue of FEMS Microbiology Ecology, says fungi already help tree species through symbiotic relationships.

Modern fungi commonly help trees by gathering water and nutrients which they can bring closer to its roots. In return, the fungi absorb food for themselves.

Fungi are often used by the forestry and agricultural industry to increase output, he said.

Pither says fungi produce structures like spores that can lie in a dormant state in the soil and permafrost for tens of thousands of years.

“In some of these permafrost regions, these spores would have been deposited before the last glaciation in ancient ecosystems and would have been buried in a way and at a time that could have actually preserved them deeper underground,” he said.

“As things change, and as the climate changes, [there’s] the possibility of roots of modern plants tapping down into those layers to get them.”

Mackenzie Delta landscape

The landscape of the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories is a maze of small lakes, rivers and permafrost. The melting permafrost could contain dormant ancient fungi spores that could help modern species adapt to climate change. (David Michael Lamb/CBC)

The idea, he says, is these ancient spores that were active in different climate conditions can help modern tree species in enhanced ways — like withstanding extreme temperatures or drought.

“The ancient guys might actually be adapted to ancient ecosystems and maybe they have some advantages for the current climate change.”

But Pither says it will take a remarkable set of coordinated conditions for the spores to switch from dormant to active.

“A lot of right conditions do have to come together here,” he said, likening it to a desert species that blooms only once in a lifetime given the perfect conditions.

Agave Plant Begins Blooming

Pither likened an ancient spore’s activation to a desert plant blooming. This American agave plant housed at the University of Michigan since 1934 bloomed for the first time in 2014. ( Matthaei Botanical Gardens/University of Michigan )

Pither says he hopes to obtain funding for the next step which is to find fungal spores to test his idea.

Listen to the interview with Jason Pither on Daybreak South:

CBC | Technology News