MONTICELLO — A research project that used old-growth forest at Allerton Park as an outdoor laboratory is trying to figure out whether soil microbes that have survived stressful environmental factors can help saplings do the same.
Some preliminary findings of the research are found in a spring 2023 issue of Science News.
“The goal of the research was to investigate if soil microbial communities could provide tolerance to future climates across forest ecosystems,” said Cassandra Allsup, a senior research scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Microbes were collected at locations in both Illinois and Wisconsin based on the stressors they had survived, including drought and/or warmer temperatures. Young white oak and silver maple trees were then grown in greenhouses with those microbes to see if the saplings would absorb some of the same resiliency as the microbes.
Thousands of saplings were then transplanted to forests — including the old-growth area south of the Sangamon River at Allerton — and monitored for three years, followed by a greenhouse project with both temperature and drought as conditions.
Allsup added Allerton was chosen “because it is an old growth upland forest that is owned by the University of Illinois and facilitates research,” noting she is also affiliated with the Health Lab at the UI-Urbana-Champaign.
There is plenty of research to be done, but the goal is to help determine whether targeting certain microbes early in tree growth will provide seedlings with enhanced tolerance to environmental challenges in reforestation sites.
“Can pre-conditioning tree seedlings via physiological and microbial pathways increase transplant success, tree growth and ecosystem services (carbon sequestration and soil biodiversity) in forested and/or post-agricultural restoration sites?” Allsup said.
“If you can control which microbes are put onto tree saplings in a nursery, you can probably help determine whether they’re going to survive or not when they’re transplanted to the field,” University of Lausanne (Switzerland) plant and fungal ecologist Ian Sanders said in the Science News article.
Dr. Richard Lankau, another UW-Madison researcher on the project noted “Trees might have more tools in their toolkit than we give them credit for” when it comes to surviving harsh and changing conditions.
“For example, can dry-adapted soil from Iowa help when planting trees in Illinois? We need to think more about soils and combinations and transplant success to actually save the forest.”
The article noted caution, saying that while certain microbes may be advantageous in one location could prove to be pathogens in others.
“That’s also a big danger,” Sanders said.
Allerton Park and Retreat Center often finds itself as a hub for research efforts, from owl research to archaeology. Find out more on the park here.