Fungi workshop first of its kind

Wilding pines

Some of the world’s leading experts in fungal biology and the study of pest and weed invasions met recently at a workshop organised by researchers from the Bio-Protection Research Centre.

The aim of the workshop, the first of its kind in New Zealand, was to stimulate discussion between scientists from different disciplines and develop a publication to guide future research in this area.

Sponsored by the New Phytologist Trust the event attracted more than 70 scientists for a day of public talks and a four day writing workshop for key participants.

“This was an incredible opportunity to bring together plant invasion ecologists, fungal ecologists and plant pathologists,” says Professor of Invasion Ecology Ian Dickie. “This was one of the first times that these three fields have been brought together.  We had to start by actually developing a shared vocabulary to discuss the highly complex interactions between invasive pathogens, other fungi, invasive plants and their ecosystem consequences.”

Fungi have long been recognised for their diversity of colour and shape, from mushrooms to moulds and mildews, and for their important roles in ecosystems. There is also widespread recognition of the damage caused by non-native fungal pathogens to industries and native plant species.

More recently, researchers are also recognising the important roles fungi can play in the spread of other introduced exotic species. In New Zealand, for example, pine trees were very difficult to grow, until the introduction of particular species of beneficial fungi allowed them to thrive. These fungi were then eaten by invasive deer and possums and their spores thus dispersed outside of plantations. As a result, wilding pines are now considered the worst invasive weed in New Zealand, damaging the environment and becoming expensive to control.

“These systems are complex,” says Professor Dickie, “but by understanding that complexity we can find new approaches to management. We can also recognise that other introduced plants might be future threats to our environment, depending on whether particular fungal associates are ever introduced.”

Speakers at the workshop included Dr Martin Nuñez from the Universidad Nacional del Comahue, who studies the role of fungi in pine invasions in South America; Professor Philip Hulme, an expert in plant invasions from Lincoln University; Associate Professor Anne Pringle, an expert in invasive death cap mushrooms from University of Wisconsin; and Dr Richard C. Cobb from UC Davis. Dr Cobb studies sudden oak death, which has wiped out millions of oak trees in California, and is caused by a fungus-like organism, similar to the one currently causing kauri trees to die in New Zealand’s North Island. 

Postdoctoral Research Fellows Dr Jennifer Bufford and Dr Lauren Waller, who presented their research at the workshop and helped organise the event, were both delighted with the calibre of the speakers in attendance and motivated by the interchange of ideas.

“We are looking beyond specific invasions to examine how large-scale patterns can help us identify future issues,” explains Dr Bufford.

They agree that the discussions gave them hope that this knowledge can be used to better understand the role of interactions between plants and fungi in biological invasions.

In early July, Professor Dickie will be giving a free public lecture on invasive fungi, plants and animals at Lincoln University as part of the Change Makers series.