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Fungi help some trees weather acid rain, not all

ITHACA, N.Y. -- A discovery reported in the latest edition of the journal Nature (June 13, 2002) -- that fungi on the roots of some trees in the Northeastern United States help supply much-needed calcium in forest soils battered by acid rain -- would seem to ease worries about the worrisome form of pollution.

But don't stop worrying just yet, warns Timothy J. Fahey, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor of Natural Resources at Cornell University and a co-author of the report, "Mycorrhizal weathering of apatite as an important calcium source in base-poor forest ecosystems."

"Not all tree species are fortunate enough to be associated with the types of root fungi that supply calcium," he says, pointing to sugar maples, which in some areas have suffered serious declines in recent years.

"And although our findings suggest that trees with the right fungal associations may be able to short-circuit the loss of calcium in the soil, that may not get them around other problems with acidification of soil," he adds. For example, when soil pH is lowered (and acidity rises) more naturally occurring aluminum is available to hinder plant growth. Fahey is co-principal investigator in the soil study sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) at New Hampshire's Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest.

Also contributing to the Nature report were researchers at the University of Michigan, Syracuse University, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the Institute of Ecosystem System Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.

Although forest scientists have known for more than three decades that acid rain causes the essential plant nutrient calcium to leach from forest soils, the role of the "short-circuiting" fungus was not suspected until about three years ago. That's when electron-microscopy examination of sand revealed tiny tunnels burrowed through the grains; the mini-miners turned out to be ectomy
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Contact: Roger Segelken
hrs2@cornell.edu
607-255-9736
Cornell University News Service
18-Jun-2002


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