A new study has revealed that fungi, often seen as pests, play a crucial role policing biodiversity in rainforests. Rachel Gallery, an assistant professor of microbial ecology in the University of Arizona's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, contributed to the project by analyzing and identifying fungal communities.
The research found that fungi regulate diversity in rainforests by making dominant species victims of their own success. Fungi spread quickly between closely packed plants of the same species, preventing them from dominating and enabling a wider range of species to flourish.
"When we think about the diversity of tropical rain forests, we often focus on plant or insect species –paying little attention to the microscopic fungi and other microbes living in and on everything," said Gallery, who did part of the research as a postdoc under Owen Lewis of Oxford University, the leader of the research project. Gallery is a faculty member in the UA's School of Natural Resources and the Environment.
"Our study is the first tropical experimental test of the long-standing hypothesis that plant pests can drive plant community diversity through their disproportionately negative effects on locally abundant plant species," she said.
''In the plant world, close relatives make bad neighbors," Lewis said. "Seedlings growing near plants of the same species are more likely to die, and we now know why. It has long been suspected that something in the soil is responsible, and we've now shown that fungi play a crucial role. It's astonishing to see microscopic fungi having such a profound effect on entire rain forests.
"Fungi prevent any single species from dominating rain forests as they spread more easily between plants and seedlings of the same species. If lots of plants from one species grow in the same place, fungi quickly cut their population down to size, leveling the playing field to give rarer species a fighting chance."
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