The story and science of a Forest Global Earth Observatory

A large study involving 43 research plots in the Forest Global Earth Observatory (ForestGEO) Network — including a swath of trees at Tyson Research Center, the environmental field station of Washington University in St. Louis — has helped clarify the power of underground fungi to shape forests. 

From the tropics to the far north, fungi in the soil seem to directly determine the number and types of trees that can thrive in a given area, said Jonathan Myers, an associate professor of biology whose work at Tyson contributed to the global findings. The study was published in Communications Biology.

Many trees depend on a special partnership with mycorrhizal fungi that grow around their roots. The fungi provide the tree with nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients, and the tree gives the fungi carbon in the form of sugar and lipids for energy. “It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement,” Myers said.

The results from this study suggest that fungi are more than casual acquaintances with their tree companions: the fungi drive diversity — or lack thereof.