Plant-fungi link subject of study

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Digging into the DNA in the dirt is the focus of a new participatory science project in Clyde.
The Haehaeata Natural Heritage Trust has been granted about $20,000 for an investigation into native plant-fungi symbiosis.

The grant was from Otago Museum’s Participatory Science Platform, which is funded through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Curious Minds programme.

Trust chairwoman Claire Becker said the project aimed to identify species of fungi that may help native plants become established.

The trust operates a nursery in Clyde to grow locally sourced seeds and plants that are used for native planting projects across the region.

Volunteer Bill Nagle said the aim of this new project was to understand the relationship between fungi and native plants in Central Otago.

“There is definite evidence from other areas in New Zealand that beneficial fungi in the soil attach to the plant roots, and they can double or quadruple the size of the root system, which makes it easier for the plants to survive.”

These types of fungi were arbuscular mycorrhizal, which did not produce mushrooms and were not evident on the surface, he said.

“We can’t go around looking for mushrooms. The only thing we can do is to take soil and root samples and do DNA sequencing on those samples,” Mr Nagle said.

Volunteers will collect soil and root samples from natives at different locations across Central Otago, along with comparison samples from introduced species in the same area.

The samples will be sent to the Otago Genomics Facility at the University of Otago for DNA extraction and sequencing.

Dr David Orlovich, at the Department of Botany, will oversee this process.

“Once the DNA is extracted and sequenced, we’ll get the data back in a very large file – often several gigabytes of data.

“We are very interested in the mycorrhizal fungi associated with native plant species in Central Otago,” Dr Orlovich said.

“Mycorrhizal fungi help plants to grow and we hope to determine what mycorrhizal fungi associate with what native plant species.

“Down the track, we may be able to manipulate the mycorrhizal fungi to give native plants the best chance of surviving when planted out.”

Otago Museum director of programmes and science engagement, Craig Grant, said it was great to provide funding for a project in Central Otago, which was a genuine example of participatory science projects (PSP).

“What we look for in PSP is fundamentally is it community driven, does the community care about it?”

“We also look at ‘is there a real research question?’, and definitely it does because they are looking at something that nobody else has looked at before.”