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U of I earns federal grant to investigate forest resilience, from trees to microbes

university of Idaho forest sampling
Chris Marx
University of Idaho
Biological sciences postdoctoral fellow Alex Alleman samples soil from the base of a western red cedar to isolate key microbial species suspected to influence tree growth and stress tolerance.

Many microbial and tree species are evolved to be resilient to wildfire. Still, some forests struggle to recover. Some University of Idaho researchers were awarded a federal grant to study how the relationship between the smallest organisms and their surrounding ecosystems is affected by climate change.

Tara Hudiburg has spent most of her career studying how drought and wildfire affect how trees store carbon. She’s a professor of rangeland and fire sciences at the University of Idaho. But she says she increasingly became curious about the role of tiny fungi and bacteria in the trees.

“Trees feed microbes sugars at their roots, and the microbes use that as their carbon source," she said. "Then as they metabolize that organic matter, they release nitrogen, and that's a nitrogen source for the trees.”

The desire to learn more about this relationship led her to team up microbiologists on a new project called EMBER — Embedding Molecular Biology in Ecosystem Research — which was recently awarded a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation. It’s all about figuring out how to help forests survive.

“If they don't keep functioning on a planetary scale and keep absorbing the amount of CO2 at the scale that they have been to date, then we have a bigger problem to solve," Hudiburg said.

Part of the project will include depriving an experimental forest of water and snow for three years, setting it on fire and then studying how everything from the treetops to the microbes in the roots respond.

EMBER also includes a partnership with the Coeur d'Alene Tribe to set up an Indigenous Innovation Lab, through which tribal members will lead research on quantifying the effects of cultural burns, among other projects.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on X @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2024 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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