Op-ed: How the filamentous underworld will help our forests survive

By Gina Myers, MEng ’20 (BIOE)

This op-ed is part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers.

The mention of fungi often bears ideas of a deadly inoculation that is anything but desirable. The notion of pathology is understandable, after the destruction wrought by fungal diseases like Dutch Elm and Needle Blight. Though fungi have had their fair share of negative exposure, there is more happening beneath the surface than meets the eye. Increasingly, the critical role fungi play in the health of terrestrial ecosystems is gaining attention-and deservedly so. Symbiotic fungi, termed “mycorrhizae”, provide enormous benefit to their vascular plant hosts. How exactly can they do this, and why are mycorrhizae so important to the earth in an era of changing ecosystems and climate crisis?

Photo by Jason Weingardt on Unsplash

Climate change and human destruction are altering the world we live in.

With biodiverse habitats disappearing at a rate never before seen, the survival and resilience of the earth rely on the ability of the natural environment to grow and thrive. Mycorrhizae are present in over 90% of known vascular land plants (“Hidden Partners”). They are key drivers of nutrient uptake, water availability, and carbohydrate sourcing in an ecosystem. With an advanced understanding of this symbiotic system, new possibilities present themselves in the form of habitat engineering and bioremediation.

Electron microscope image of endomycorrhizal fungi with spores attached to the hyphal strands. (Source: “Mycorrhizal Fungi.”)

Imagine an ecosystem starved for nutrients after years of mismanaged soil and parched from an extended period of drought. It can be nearly impossible to convince plants and trees to grow — let alone thrive — in settings like these.

We need plants and forests to spring up, transforming destitute lands. Mycorrhizal inoculation of plant roots catalyzes the establishment and development of a thriving ecosystem. In the same way, with renewed mycorrhizal presence, a struggling ecosystem can return to its former glory. Often an imbalance of nutrients, water or species puts an ecosystem on a path to poor health and destruction, which can be halted or reversed through careful curation of nutrients and fungal strains. The figure to the left shows a cross-sectional view of huge mycorrhizae surrounding the nascent root system of a pine seedling. (Source: “Mycorrhizae Benefits to Your Trees.”)

How exactly does the symbiosis between plants and mycorrhizae work?

In this interaction, each species derives sufficient benefit for the relationship for it to be evolutionarily favorable — even preferred. From the plant’s perspective, a fungal partner means increased nutrient and water availability, as well as a more robust root system. The fungal hyphae extend well beyond the roots of the plant, transporting water and nutrients far from the circumference of soil that the plant would be able to access. This means that the functional area available to the plant to reach what it needs from the soil is increased by up to 50 times (“Benefits of Mycorrhizae”). Genes that enable efficient nutrient assimilation and uptake are present in the fungal genome. These make key drivers of plant growth including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium available to the plant (Ai-Hua, Ceccaroli) following assimilation by the fungus. Similarly, mycorrhizae absorb moisture from afar and transport it right to the plant’s roots (“Benefits of Mycorrhizae”). The fungi provide all this in return for easy access to carbohydrates, which are generated during the Calvin Cycle inside the plant cell using energy from the sun (Yang). These carbohydrates become available to the fungi through the root system of the plant and promote fungal growth by lowering the barrier to energy acquisition. Symbiotic interactions are orchestrated for each species and are foundational to the health of the ecosystem.

By harnessing the power of mycorrhizal fungi, we can re-imagine forests to be robust and stable ecosystems.

Pictured above are two forests, one lacking its illustrious health and biodiversity (left, “Oregon Hikers”), the other thriving and healthy (right, “Beautiful Forest”).

Forests rooted in a strong mycorrhizal partnership are not only healthier, they are resilient to the threats posed by climate change and human infiltration. The ability to engineer plant-fungal symbiosis in ecosystems across the globe could transform how we fight climate change. Forests nourish the land, and fungi nourish the forests.

Using fungi, we can halt and reverse the downward trajectory of terrestrial ecosystems in the modern era.

About the author:

Gina Myers is a natural leader and brings a fresh perspective to engineering and leadership from her interests in endurance sports and environmental stewardship. She is a top performer in all her endeavors and her background both as a culinary professional and bioengineer contains numerous honors. She received an Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts from the Culinary Institute of America after graduating high school at age 16. She then made a sharp left turn away from the culinary world and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of the Pacific in just over three years. After an internship at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard studying KRAS cancer genetics and two years working at BioMarin Pharmaceuticals to develop a gene therapy cure for Hemophilia, she decided to invest in her entrepreneurial ambitions by attending UC Berkeley’s Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership, where she currently studies Bioengineering. Whether training for an ultramarathon or the Ironman triathlon world championships, working with a team to bring a microfluidic design to life, or passionately making the case for an environmental or political issue, her motivation and conceptual and organizational abilities are valued by her colleagues and mentors. Connect with Gina.

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Berkeley Master of Engineering

Berkeley Master of Engineering

Master of Engineering at UC Berkeley with a focus on leadership. Learn more about the program through our publication.