Introduction to ecosystems
Introduction to ecosystems

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Introduction to ecosystems

2.3 Fungi and the woodwide web

Figure 3

Fungi are an important component of ecosystems, especially in forests or woodlands, as they are valuable for decomposition. Decomposition breaks down dead organic matter, releasing nutrients, which can then be reabsorbed.

In this audio, Dr David Robinson talks about how fungi also have an intimate relationship with trees, which extends the woodland ecosystem underground.

Reflect on the chain of interactions occurring between trees and fungi, starting with the photosynthesis in the tree canopy and ending with fungus in the tree’s roots absorbing nutrients.

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Transcript: Investigating symbiotic relationships

Investigating symbiotic relationships

NARRATOR
Fungi are an important part of any forest or woodland ecosystem. They are the major agents by which twigs and leaves are broken down, releasing nutrients for reabsorption by plants. And we know fungi also form a constructive partnership with living trees. David Robinson from the Open University's Life Sciences Department explains that although we have known about this partnership and relationship for some time, we are now learning more about the nature of that relationship.
DR. DAVID ROBINSON
You can go back nearly, I think, 400 million years and look at fossils, and you can actually determine that this relationship existed in fossils that length of time ago. So it isn't it biologically a new idea. It's only more recently that the precise nature of that relationship has been worked on. For example, it's become possible to use radioactive isotopes to track movement of molecules between fungi and tree roots. And then, even more recently, has come the applications of this knowledge, whereby horticulturalists and agriculturalists can make use of cultures of fungi to set up these relationships for themselves in areas that they're trying to plant. You can go and look at websites from people who supply mycelium - that's the fungal culture - for use in a whole range of applications.
NARRATOR
In Malaysia, scientists are now finding ways to apply the knowledge of the partnership between fungi and trees in order to ease a problematic relationship between economics and ecology.
DR. DAVID ROBINSON
I think the Interest about the Malaysian example is that they have a very particular problem that they are trying to solve there, and they're solving it with the use of fundamental research. And they're trying to pioneer techniques not only for changing logging practices in the country, but also for reclaiming areas which have been lost to forest and perhaps industrial areas of which now, with the aid of this research, they can hope to reclaim.
NARRATOR
In Malaysia, Dr. Lee Su See is trying to establish hardwood trees in a barren area of land using her knowledge of the way in which the relationship between fungi and trees works.
DR. DAVID ROBINSON
I was very struck by the experiment that Dr. Lee Su See was carrying out in reclamation. I mean, the area of land that she was working on looked absolutely impossible for plants to grow. Although, of course, there were one or two acacia plants that had managed to get established there. Of course, she was going to work on a large scale, so she couldn't just put plants there and hope for the best. She had to inoculate them with the fungus so as to get the web of mycelium and roots established. And it was obvious also that she needed to add other things, notably quite a lot of water. But it really didn't look the sort of place where you would expect to grow plants. And she clearly has had some success, and the success undoubtedly will continue. It's a long-term project, even so.
NARRATOR
The larger aim of Dr. Lee Su See's work is to get a sustainable source of hardwood in order to avoid the logging of untouched rain forest. In so doing, she is combining research with direct application.
DR. DAVID ROBINSON
So she's trying to get, really, quite large-scale production of hardwood, that is, really quite a number of trees in the same area, and get them established and growing away as quickly as possible. And this was difficult without the knowledge of the way in which the link with fungi worked.
NARRATOR
This growing knowledge of the large-scale web of relationships going on underground is changing scientists' views of the relationship between larger trees and saplings.
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