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Wildfires Spark Population Booms in Fungi and Bacteria

Scientific American

Understanding how microbial communities change after a fire can help researchers to predict how an ecosystem will recover

By Jennifer Leman

Wildfires are getting larger, burning hotter and becoming increasingly unpredictable, devastating plant and animal species. Now, researchers are studying how these blazes affect the tiniest of forest organisms—including bacteria and fungi—and finding that some microbes thrive after an intense wildfire.

A study posted last week on the preprint server bioRxiv reports that populations of several bacterial and fungal species increased after severe wildfires in the boreal forests of the Northwest Territories and Alberta in Canada. These kinds of studies, as well as others on how fire characteristics such as smoke affect the distribution of microbes, give researchers a clearer picture of how wildfires change microbial communities. This could help them to predict how ecosystems will recover after a conflagration.

“Fires typically don’t destroy a microbial community—they change its composition,” says Jessica Miesel, an ecosystem ecologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Some bacteria and fungi have a symbiotic relationship with plants, and this often dictates which nutrients will be available to vegetation in an area. If fires destroy certain microbial communities, then the plants that rely on them might not be able to re-establish themselves in that ecosystem.

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