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Megafires Are Catastrophically Destructive, But These Microbes Thrive in Them


We know that there are some truly hardy microorganisms out there – able to survive in deep space and deep underground, for example – but a group of microbes identified in a new study might be the most impressively robust yet.

The research describes fungi and bacteria that have not only survived the 2016 Soberanes megafire in California's redwood tanoak forests but actually thrived as a result of the fire. Understanding how and why this happens could aid recovery efforts for regions affected by wildfires' devastating impacts.

Further analysis revealed that microbes that did cling on to life and subsequently flourish are genetically linked, a finding that should offer more clues as to why these forms of life are able to make it through the burning.

"They have shared adaptive traits that allow them to respond to fire, and this improves our ability to predict which microbes will respond, either positively or negatively, to events like these," says mycologist Sydney Glassman from the University of California, Riverside.

The soil samples came from plots researchers established in the mid-2000s to study the outbreak of sudden oak death; they first collected samples in 2013, and they compared their contents with samples taken immediately after the fire in 2016.

Not all of the established plots were affected by the fire, so the team even had access to an unburned control plot for comparison.

Overall, there was up to a 70 percent decline in fungi species richness, while bacterial species declined by up to 52 percent per sample. But some bacterial groups, including Actinobacteria (which helps plant material decompose) and Firmicutes (which helps plant growth and control.

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