In Rim Fire’s wake, fungi hold hope for rebirth

The 2013 Yosemite Rim Fire was one of California’s largest wildfires in history, charring more than 257,000 acres. But the devastation also provided a rare opportunity for research.

The 2013 Rim Fire burned this research plot, killing the trees shown. A new study on fungi populations provides hope for forest rebirth. (Photo by Tom Bruns)

The 2013 Rim Fire burned this research plot, killing the trees shown. A new study on fungi populations provides hope for forest rebirth. (Photo by Tom Bruns)

UC Berkeley fungal ecologist Sydney Glassman, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Natural Resources, studies the symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and trees. Trees rely upon their fungal spore partners to help them regenerate after fires, but it had been unclear if the fungal spore bank could withstand the onslaught of such a catastrophic fire.

Glassman and her faculty adviser, Tom Bruns, a professor of plant and microbial biology, had long-term study plots that were burned in the Rim Fire, but that also meant they had years of data they could use for comparison before the wildfire.

She returned to the plots to collect soil and seedling samples along the forest floor. She and Bruns found that the spore bank of ectomycorrhizal fungi survived the fire and dominated the colonization of pine seedlings. Populations of specific fire-adapted fungi, such as Rhizopogon olivaceotinctus, saw a big jump.

These study findings were published recently in the ISME Journal, a publication of the International Society for Microbial Ecology.

Read more about Glassman’s work on the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology website.