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Building Consensus Around the Assessment and Interpretation of Symbiodiniaceae Diversity

Posted on: March 2nd, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments
Tamar Goulet

Dr. Tammy Goulet researches symbiosis and host-symbiont genotypic combinations, marine ecology, coral reefs, and coral-algal physiology.

Dr. Tammy Goulet coauthored the manuscript that will be published in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ.  Below is the abstract and the international team of co-authors.



Within microeukaryotes, genetic variation and functional variation sometimes accumulate more quickly than morphological differences. To understand the evolutionary history and ecology of such lineages, it is key to examine diversity at multiple levels of organization. In the dinoflagellate family Symbiodiniaceae, which can form endosymbioses with cnidarians (e.g., corals, octocorals, sea anemones, jellyfish), other marine invertebrates (e.g., sponges, molluscs, flatworms), and protists (e.g., foraminifera), molecular data have been used extensively over the past three decades to describe phenotypes and to make evolutionary and ecological inferences. Despite advances in Symbiodiniaceae genomics, a lack of consensus among researchers with respect to interpreting genetic data has slowed progress in the field and acted as a barrier to reconciling observations. Here, we identify key challenges regarding the assessment and interpretation of Symbiodiniaceae genetic diversity across three levels: species, populations, and communities. We summarize areas of agreement and highlight techniques and approaches that are broadly accepted. In areas where debate remains, we identify unresolved issues and discuss technologies and approaches that can help to fill knowledge gaps related to genetic and phenotypic diversity. We also discuss ways to stimulate progress, in particular by fostering a more inclusive and collaborative research community. We hope that this perspective will inspire and accelerate coral reef science by serving as a resource to those designing experiments, publishing research, and applying for funding related to Symbiodiniaceae and their symbiotic partnerships.


Davies SW1*,  Gamache MH2, Howe-Kerr LI3, Kriefall NG1, Baker AC4, Banaszak AT5, Bay LK6, Bellantuono AJ7, Bhattacharya D8, Chan CX9, Claar DC10, Coffroth MA11, Cunning R12, Davy SK13, del Campo J14, Díaz-Almeyda EM15, Frommlet JC16, Fuess LE17, González-Pech RA18, Goulet TL19, Hoadley KD20, Howells EJ21, Hume BCC22, Kemp DW23, Kenkel CD24, Kitchen SA25, LaJeunesse TC18, Lin S26, McIlroy SE27, McMinds R28, Nitschke MR6, Oakley CA13, Peixoto RS29, Prada C30, Putnam HM30, Quigley KM31, Reich HG30, Reimer JD32, Rodriguez-Lanetty M7, Rosales SM33, Saad OS34, Sampayo EM35, Santos SR36, Shoguchi E37, Smith EG38, Stat M39, Stephens TG8, Strader ME40, Suggett DJ41, Swain TD42, Tran C43, Traylor-Knowles N4, Voolstra CR22, Warner ME44, Weis VM45, Wright RM46, Xiang T38, Yamashita H47, Ziegler M48, Correa AMS3* and Parkinson JE2*

Corresponding authors(*)



1Department of Biology, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA

2Department of Integrative Biology, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL, USA

3Department of BioSciences, Rice University, Houston, TX, USA

4Department of Marine Biology and Ecology, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, Miami, FL, USA

5Unidad A Académica de Sistemas Arrecifales, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, Puerto Morelos, Mexico

6Reef Recovery, Adaptation, and Restoration, Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, QLD, Australia

7Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA

8Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA

9Australian Centre for Ecogenomics, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

10Hakai Institute, Campbell River, Canada

11Department of Geology, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, USA

12Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research, John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, IL, USA

13School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand

14Biodiversity Program, Institut de Biologia Evolutiva, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain

15Department of Natural Sciences, New College of Florida, Sarasota, FL, USA

16Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies, Department of Biology, University of Aveiro, Aveiro, Portugal

17Department of Biology, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, USA

18Department of Biology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA

19Department of Biology, University of Mississippi, Oxford, MS, USA

20Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, USA

21National Marine Science Centre, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Southern Cross University, Coffs Harbour, NSW, Australia

22Department of Biology, University of Konstanz, Konstanz, Germany

23Department of Biology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL, USA

24Department of Biological Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

25Divsion of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA

26Department of Marine Sciences, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA

27Swire Institute of Marine Science, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

28Center for Global Health and Infectious Disease Research, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL, USA

29Red Sea Research Center, Division of Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

30Department of Biological Sciences, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI, USA

31Minderoo Foundation, Perth, WA, Australia

32MISE, Department of Biology, Chemistry and Marine Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of the Ryukyus, Nishihara, Okinawa, Japan

33The Cooperative Institute For Marine And Atmospheric Studies, University of Miami, Miami, FL, USA

34Department of Biological Oceanography, Red Sea University, Port-Sudan, Sudan

35School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, QLD, Australia

36Department of Biological Sciences, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, USA

37Marine Genomics Unit, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, Okinawa, Japan

38Department of Biological Sciences, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, USA

39School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia

40Department of Biology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA

41Climate Change Cluster, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, NSW, Australia

42Department of Marine and Environmental Science, Nova Southeastern University, Dania Beach, FL, USA

43Department of Biology, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA, USA

44School of Marine Science and Policy, University of Delaware, Lewes, DE, USA

45Department of Integrative Biology, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA

46Department of Biological Sciences, Smith College, Northampton, MA, USA

47Fisheries Technology Institute, Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency, Ishigaki, Okinawa, Japan

48Department of Animal Ecology & Systematics, Justus Liebig University Giessen, Giessen, Germany

Can Trees Communicate Underground? Maybe Not

Posted on: February 14th, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments

M biology professor debunks popular theory about soil fungal networks

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Biology professor Jason Hoeksema (right) has published a paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution that debunks a theory that trees communicate through soil fungal networks. The paper offers suggestions to strengthening future experiments on these networks, such as research that his doctoral student Ian Mounts (left) is conducting at Ole Miss. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Imagine this: a tree in a forest is threatened by a predator or an invasive plant species. Underground, it sounds an alarm to neighboring trees through the “Wood-Wide Web,” a network of mycorrhizal fungi that connects them through the soil.

It is a fascinating theory, but a University of Mississippi scientist has doubts – and he’s published a paper that justifies them.

“Our paper investigates the science behind the idea that trees use common mycorrhizal networks to help redistribute resources and alter the balance of competitive interactions between them,” said Jason Hoeksema, professor of biology. “These ideas have grown really, really popular in recent years, particularly the idea that these connections are used by trees to help each other and even signal of enemies, danger or attack.”

The research – co-authored by Hoeksema; Justine Karst, first author and associate professor at the University of Alberta; and Melanie Jones, professor of biology at the University of British Columbia – was published Feb. 13 as “Positive citation bias and overinterpreted results lead to misinformation on common mycorrhizal networks in forests” in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The Wood-Wide Web was coined in the late 1990s to refer to network of fungi that connect roots of multiple plants of the same or different species belowground, forming a common mycorrhizal network, or CMN. Over the years, researchers have hypothesized that CMNs assist trees, especially old and large ones, with providing resources to other trees.

The Wood-Wide Web refers to network of fungi that connect roots of multiple plants of the same or different species underground, forming a common mycorrhizal network. Over the years, researchers have hypothesized that CMNs assist trees in providing resources to other trees, but a new study co-authored by UM biologist Jason Hoeksema debunks that theory. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The idea is so pervasive that it has been accepted as gospel among many scientists and in popular media as well. The subject has been featured in TED Talks, books, podcasts, documentaries, and even popped up in one of Hoeksema’s favorite television shows, “Ted Lasso.”

“As a society, we need to try to think critically when we see what seems like really convincing information on the internet, whether it’s a YouTube video, TikTok or documentary,” Hoeksema said. “If it seems too good to be true, and it’s not discussing possible alternatives, we should look at it skeptically.”

More than 25 years of research has been conducted, both in the lab and in the field, on mycorrhizal fungi networks and their relationship to trees. Hoeksema and his co-authors critically reviewed these studies for the strength of their evidence and how effectively the experiments were carried out.

The paper examines three main claims. The first is that common mycorrhizal networks are ubiquitous; they are everywhere and in a persistently functional state.

“We found that there are very few studies that find evidence of this in the field,” Hoeksema said. “Even if there is evidence that they form, which is likely, we don’t know if they last and whether they last long enough to be functional, because they may die frequently.”

The second claim the authors investigated is that CMNs are beneficial to the trees and forests. They found that these benefits were almost always tested in seedlings, not mature plants. While testing growth and survival on adult trees would be difficult, conclusions should not be drawn based on experiments with seedlings, Hoeksema said.

“Even in the studies on seedlings, only a small percentage of them show benefits for seedings to be connected to these networks,” he said. “Frequently those benefits are offset by negative effects that are happening at the same time.”

This image shows a mycorrhizal fungus, Ecto mycelium, in the soil, attached to roots of pine trees in the dunes of Oregon. Photo by Jason Hoeksema/UM Department of Biology

One such negative effect is mediated by roots when they are separated from the fungal networks during experimentation. This root competition would offset the benefits of the CMNs and allow for alternative explanations of the results. Hoeksema and his co-authors provide suggested approaches for experimentation going forward to eliminate this effect.

Some individuals advocate against clear-cutting old growth forests because of the purported benefits of CMNs. The paper concludes that knowledge on CMNs is too sparse and unsettled to inform forest management.

This does not negate the importance of mycorrhizal fungi to forest ecosystems, Karst said.

“Even if trees don’t ‘talk’ to one another through underground fungi, there are many reasons to be concerned about losing old growth forests,” Karst said. “While we don’t understand the function of common mycorrhizal networks in forests, we do know that mycorrhizal fungi are important to trees, soils, and forest ecosystems.

“Some of these fungi are essential for nutrient cycling and tree productivity, some aid trees in tolerance of stressors, and others promote carbon sequestration belowground.”

The third claim addressed in the paper is that trees warn one other of threats, such as insect damage, by signaling through the networks.

“We found the least evidence for this of all,” Hoeksema said. “There are no field studies that address this question and only one greenhouse study using seedlings in pots.”

Ecologist Justine Karst, of the University of Alberta, is a co-author with Hoeksema of a new perspective paper challenging claims that underground fungal networks allow trees to ‘talk’ to one other and share resources. Submitted photo

That study is intriguing, but problematic, Hoeksema said. It showed signaling when seedlings in pots were connected only by CMNs and did not have overlapping roots. When the roots were allowed to interconnect, as they would in nature, the signaling was not present.

“We don’t understand why we would see the effect without roots, but when roots interact naturally the signaling goes away,” Hoeksema said. “It’s part of the fascination of forests and tree interactions and illustrates the mysteries that are out still there.”

Another component of the paper looks at a “disturbing” trend of inaccurate citations of influential scientific papers on the subject.

“Inaccurate citations were increasing over time during the last 25 years,” Hoeksema said. “It was to the point where, depending upon which part of the literature you look at, 25%-50% of the citations are now considered unsupported.

“This misinformation seems to be propagated through the scientific literature as well and growing.”

Karst said that science is not static and rarely “settled.”

“To many in the research community, that trees communicate through underground fungal networks was never settled,” she said. “It has recently been touted as an established fact, but this ignores a long-standing debate. It’s critical to scrutinize extraordinary claims because they can distort the science and mislead the public.

“As researchers in this field, we are obliged to call out misinformation; otherwise, science loses its credibility.”

Hoeksema agrees and hopes that the paper will “reset the field to some degree.”

“We want to encourage scientists and the next generation to look at these questions in a fresh way that doesn’t assume anything about the results,” he said. “Rather, to look at them critically and try to move forward while recognizing that we have fascinating complexities that need to be worked out.”

TEDx University of Mississippi Speakers Look to Face Forward

Posted on: February 2nd, 2023 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Eight speakers set for Feb. 23 event

UM student Jakob Anseman shares his experiences of living with Asperger’s syndrome and discusses the social and economic challenges faced by people with autism at a previous TEDxUniversityofMississippi event. This year’s forum is set for Feb. 23 in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – With the goal of sharing ideas worth spreading, TEDxUniversityofMississippi will host its eighth annual event at 7 p.m. Feb. 23 in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

Attendees will enjoy an evening of music, art and thought-provoking, short talks addressing areas from artificial intelligence to social progress. This year’s theme is “facing forward.”

“As a team, we felt this theme embodied our organization’s goal of spreading new ideas,” said Emma Brewer, a senior public policy leadership and economics major from Nashville, Tennessee, and chief of staff for TEDxUniversityofMississippi. “We aim to spark conversations that will motivate and advance our communities.”

The 2023 speakers were chosen from nearly 300 nominations. They are:

  • Adam Gust is the only professional drummer in the world certified by the Polyvagal Institute in the clinical application of nervous system science to drum performance. Adam focuses on identifying what happens when drummers find their “groove,” synchronizing brain/body and thought/feeling. Gust has hosted drum workshops at the Musicians Institute and performance workshops at the University of Southern California. He creates unique drum video content.
  • Michael “Bret” Hood is very aware of how people fall down a slippery slope, having served 25 years as a special agent in the FBI. Hood is an adjunct professor of corporate governance and ethics for the University of Virginia, a board member at Southern Illinois University’s Accounting School and a faculty member for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. During his talk, Hood will show how easy it is to deviate from ethical baselines, but more importantly, how to mitigate these unconscious processes to avoid making life-altering mistakes.
  • Vince Hafeli is an international speaker, author and advocate for mental health and suicide awareness in the workplace. Using his 37 years of industry experience, lived suicidal experience and doctoral research, Hafeli will lead the audience on his journey from adolescence to adulthood. He outlines how he has facilitated change in his organization’s culture when addressing mental health issues and raising suicide awareness, especially in the construction industry. He presents data from his doctoral candidacy research outlining relevant industry statistics and emphasizes: “It should be OK to say that I am not OK” in the workplace.
  • Yiwei Han and Yongjian Qiu will share their collaborative efforts to better understand plant responses to climate change. Han is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and Qiu is an assistant professor of biology, both at the University of Mississippi. Han and Qiu collaborate closely on designing, manufacturing and implementing miniature and micro heaters that can be placed on the surface of young seedlings’ organs or inside individual plant cells. By fluctuating temperature and observing plant responses to heat change, they hope to uncover the mechanisms by which plant organs and cells coordinate a response to changing temperature.
  • Arvinder Singh is a technologist, entrepreneur and researcher at Ole Miss. He will explore how culture-specific interpretation could be a key in developing balanced and ethical artificial intelligence. Singh’s previous work has been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, Harvard Smart Cities Accelerator, Qatar Foundation Annual Research Conference, the U.S. State Department and the World Bank. For over a decade, Singh has carved a career path in software, higher education, journalism and advocacy. As a civil rights advocate, he persuaded U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson to back a bipartisan call for the FBI to track ethnic hate crimes, and he was part of a delegation invited to the White House for a briefing on Sikh civil rights issues in 2012. Singh is completing his doctorate in engineering at UM.
  • Castel V. Sweet is a sociologist who explores the intricacies of community, culture and race, with a specific interest in the role of place and space. Through her work as a community engagement professional, she encourages exploring the unknown, making the unfamiliar familiar, and cultivating transformational relationships. Sweet earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice/criminology from Hampton University, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from Louisiana State University.
  • Nadeejah Niranjalie Wijayatunga is an assistant professor in the UM Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management. She is an obesity researcher and a registered dietitian nutritionist. Before coming to the United States for her doctorate in nutritional sciences at Texas Tech University, Wijayatunga worked as a medical doctor and was a faculty member at the medical school of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in Sri Lanka. She studies biobehavioral aspects of obesity and unhealthy lean – also known as skinny fat – as well as the role of diet and exercise in both conditions. During her talk, she will explain the growing research around unhealthy lean and associated health risks.

TEDxUniversityofMississippi is a registered student organization dedicated to sharing ideas from Mississippi’s innovators, creators and thought leaders, as well as thought-provoking ideas generated outside Mississippi. They aim to spark meaningful conversation in the Ole Miss community and beyond.

This year’s event organizers are Brewer; Kathryn Matthews, a senior marketing communication strategy major from Columbus, Ohio, assistant chief of staff; Kate Hooper, faculty adviser; and a team of nearly 20 students and advisers.

“These students find speakers, market and mount a live production, pursue public relations initiatives, fundraise and more,” Hooper said. “They are highly active, building leadership and professional skills while benefiting our community.”

Tickets to the event are free and can be reserved at

TEDxUniversityofMississippi’s core partners include the Office of the Provost, College of Liberal Arts, Department of Writing and Rhetoric and Residential College South. It is supported by student activity fees.

For more information about TEDxUniversityofMississippi, visit and follow the group’s social media at @tedxunivms on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

About TEDx, x = independently organized event

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TED Talks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized. (Subject to certain rules and regulations.)

About TED

TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading, often in the form of short talks delivered by leading thinkers and doers. Many of these talks are given at TED conferences, intimate TED Salons and thousands of independently organized TEDx events around the world. Videos of these talks are made available, free, on and other platforms. Audio versions of TED Talks are published to TED Talks Daily, available on all podcast platforms.

TED’s open and free initiatives for spreading ideas include, where new TED Talk videos are posted daily; TEDx, which licenses thousands of individuals and groups to host local, self-organized TEDstyle events around the world; the TED Fellows program, which selects innovators from around the globe to amplify the impact of their remarkable projects and activities; The Audacious Project, which surfaces and funds critical ideas that have the potential to impact millions of lives; TED Translators, which crowdsources the subtitling of TED Talks so that big ideas can spread across languages and borders; and the educational initiative TED-Ed. TED also offers TED@Work, a program that reimagines TED Talks for workplace learning.

TED also has a growing library of original podcasts, including “The TED Interview with Chris Anderson,” “WorkLife with Adam Grant,” “Far Flung with Saleem Reshamwala” and “How to Be a Better Human.” Follow TED on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and on LinkedIn.

Growing High School STEM Outreach Program Led by Graduate Student

Posted on: December 13th, 2022 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Inspiring passion for science-related fields in the next generation of scholars

Person looking through microscope

UM doctoral student Savannah Draud conducts research in the Department of Biology. Draud, who teaches introductory biology labs, also works with Oxford-area high school students to increase their science literacy. Submitted photo

Savannah Draud, a doctoral student in biology at the University of Mississippi, is spending time at local high schools to help increase science literacy in an effort to inspire students to further their education and foster a love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.

The Long Island, New York, native, who teaches introductory biology labs at UM, noticed that her students were having issues with an assignment that asked them to read and summarize a scientific paper.

“I noticed that my students were struggling with that project because they’ve never seen a scientific paper before, and reading that kind of literature is a lot different than reading a normal book,” Draud said.

That observation is what guides the aspiring college professor’s lectures at the high schools, where she speaks to pre-AP biology, AP biology, human anatomy and physiology, and chemistry classes.

“My idea is to go to the high schools here and teach biology classes scientific literacy skills – how to read these kinds of papers and then also how to have discussions about those papers,” she said. “The students can ask about anything – it can range from the specific paper we’re talking about to issues of gender or underrepresented communities.

“Studying science can lead to good scientific and philosophical discussions.”

The talks pique the interest of high school students because they allow the students to explore things they’re curious about.

Savannah Draud

Savannah Draud works with Oxford-area high school students to increase their science literacy in hopes of inspiring them to pursue careers in STEM fields. Submitted photo

“Just last week, I had one group of students that were excited to ask me the most random biology questions,” Draud said. “They were shooting off random questions like, ‘Oh, what do you think goes through the mind of a bear when it decides to attack you?’ and ‘Do jellyfish count as a real animal?’

“I could tell that they were interested and actually listening to what I had to say when I was explaining it through a scientific lens.”

Draud invites her Ole Miss peers to join her in the classroom so that students can hear from a variety of research perspectives.

“It is like a tiered mentorship program, where people from all different levels studying science come and talk to the students about what they do,” she said. “A lot of my fellow Ph.D. students and master’s students have their own research published already, so I ask them to come in and talk about their research so that the high school students have a chance to talk to the actual scientists who do the work.”

Draud’s enthusiasm for science shows through her lectures and students look forward to her visits, said Jeana Noble, biology teacher at Oxford High School.

“Not only were my students able to ‘drop their shoulders’ a bit as she simplified the process of dissecting a scientific article, but she also gave them real-world connections,” Noble said. “Her personal experiences of success and failure taught them that you can learn as much from failing as succeeding. What an awesome opportunity for my students.”

Creating and maintaining without any funding is an impressive achievement for a doctoral student, said Sixue Chen, chair of the UM Department of Biology. Chen and Draud have been working on ways to expand the program’s teachers, funding and reach moving forward.

“As one of the nation’s poorest states, Mississippi has a large population living in poverty and food insecurity,” Chen said. “The disproportionally affected people are often underrepresented minorities and disadvantaged communities.

“One effective way to lift people out of poverty is pursuing higher education – getting more and more high school students excited about science and wanting to attend college is life-changing for many people, and thus, is especially important for Mississippians’ future.

“My dream is to have an inspiring young scientist like Savannah in every Mississippi school.”

Savannah Draud Interviews with SuperTalk: Good Things

Posted on: December 9th, 2022 by cnstewa1 No Comments

“Savannah Draud, graduate assistant at the Department of Biology at the University of Mississippi, uses her own free time (and Money) to help high school students in the Magnolia State better understand STEM!” Savannah is a recipient of the Mississippi Space Grant Consortium Fellowship.  The grant helped spur her goal to increase student’s literacy and knowledge of science works and terminology.  The main objective is to ensure students think critically and perceptively about the information around them and they are able to make informed decisions.  Savannah would like to partner with Dr. Chen, Department of Biology Chair, to develop the program further and continued its ongoing success.



Are Trees Talking Underground? For Scientists, It’s in Dispute.

Posted on: November 7th, 2022 by cnstewa1 No Comments

From Ted Lasso to TED Talks, the theory of the “wood-wide web” is everywhere, and some scientists argue that it is overblown and unproven.

  • Nov. 7, 2022Updated 8:18 a.m. ET

Justine Karst, a mycologist at the University of Alberta, feared things had gone too far when her son got home from eighth grade and told her he had learned that trees could talk to each other through underground networks.

Her colleague, Jason Hoeksema of the University of Mississippi, had a similar feeling when watching an episode of “Ted Lasso” in which one soccer coach told another that trees in a forest cooperated rather than competed for resources.

Few recent scientific discoveries have captured the public’s imagination quite like the wood-wide web — a wispy network of fungal filaments hypothesized to shuttle nutrients and information through the soil and to help forests thrive. The idea sprouted in the late 1990s from studies showing that sugars and nutrients can flow underground between trees. In a few forests, researchers have traced fungi from the roots of one tree to those of others, suggesting that mycelial threads could be providing conduits between trees.

These findings have challenged the conventional view of forests as a mere population of trees: Trees and fungi are, in fact, coequal players on the ecological stage, scientists say. Without both, forests as we know them wouldn’t exist.

Scientists and nonscientists alike have drawn grand and sweeping conclusions from this research. They have posited that shared fungal networks are ubiquitous in forests around the world, that they help trees talk to each other and, as “Ted Lasso’s” Coach Beard articulated, that they make forests fundamentally cooperative places, with trees and fungi united in common purpose — a dramatic departure from the usual Darwinian picture of interspecies competition. The concept has been featured in numerous media reportsTV shows and best-selling books, including a Pulitzer Prize winner. It even shows up in “Avatar,” the highest-grossing movie of all time.

And the theory could be starting to influence what happens in real forests. Some scientists, for example, have suggested managing forests explicitly to protect fungal networks.

Justine Karst, a mycologist at the University of Alberta, during a visit to Bunchberry Meadows near Edmonton. She was worried when her son came from 8th grade and told her trees talk underground.Credit…Todd Korol for The New York Times

But as the wood-wide web has gained fame, it has also inspired a backlash among scientists. In a recent review of published research, Dr. Karst, Dr. Hoeksema and Melanie Jones, a biologist at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, found little evidence that shared fungal networks help trees to communicate, swap resources or thrive. Indeed, the trio said, scientists have yet to show that these webs are widespread or ecologically significant in forests.

For some of their peers, such a reality check is long overdue. “I think this is a very timely talk,” said Kabir Peay, a mycologist at Stanford University, about a presentation Dr. Karst recently gave. He hoped it could “reorient the field.”

Others, however, maintain that the wood-wide web is on firm ground and are confident that further research will confirm many of the hypotheses proffered about fungi in forests. Colin Averill, a mycologist at ETH Zurich, said that the evidence Dr. Karst marshaled is impressive. But, he added, “the way I interpret the totality of that evidence is completely different.”

Most plant roots are colonized by mycorrhizal fungi, forming one of Earth’s most widespread symbioses. The fungi gather water and nutrients from the soil; they then swap some of these treasures with plants in exchange for sugars and other carbon-containing molecules.

David Read, a botanist then at the University of Sheffield, showed in a 1984 paper that compounds labeled with a radioactive form of carbon could flow via fungi between lab-grown plants. Years later, Suzanne Simard, then an ecologist with the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, demonstrated two-way carbon transfer in a forest between young Douglas fir and paper birch trees. When Dr. Simard and her colleagues shaded Douglas firs to reduce how much they photosynthesized, the trees’ absorption of radioactive carbon spiked, suggesting that underground carbon flow could boost young trees’ growth in the shady understory.

Dr. Simard and colleagues published their results in 1997 in the journal Nature, which splashed it on the cover and christened the discovery the “wood-wide web.” Soon after, a group of senior researchers criticized the study, saying it had methodological flaws that confounded the results. Dr. Simard responded to the critiques, and she and her colleagues designed additional studies to address them.

Over time, the criticisms faded, and the wood-wide web gained adherents. Dr. Simard’s 1997 paper has garnered almost 1,000 citations and her 2016 TED Talk, “How trees talk to each other,” has been viewed more than 5 million times.

In his book “The Hidden Life of Trees,” which has sold more than 2 million copies, Peter Wohlleben, a German forester, cited Dr. Simard when describing forests as social networks and mycorrhizal fungi as “fiber-optic internet cables” that help trees inform each other about dangers such as insects and drought.

Scenes from Rowan Oak in Oxford, Miss. Advocates of the wood-wide web theory believe evidence will mount in its favor. “If you ask me if in the future, we will be showing that trees actually can communicate,” one said.Credit…Robert Wayne Lewis for The New York Times

Subterranean forest research has continued to grow, too. In 2016, Tamir Klein, a plant ecophysiologist then at the University of Basel and now at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, extended Dr. Simard’s research into a mature Swiss forest of spruce, pine, larch and beech trees. His team tracked carbon isotopes from one tree to the roots of other nearby trees, including different species, in an experimental forest plot. The researchers attributed most of the carbon movement to mycorrhizal fungi but acknowledged they had not proven it.

Dr. Simard, who has been at the University of British Columbia since 2002, has led further studies showing that large, old “mother” trees are hubs of forest networks and can send carbon underground to younger seedlings. She has argued in favor of the view that trees communicate via mycorrhizal networks and against a long-held idea that competition between trees is the dominant force shaping forests. In her TED Talk, she called trees “super-cooperators.”

But as the wood-wide web’s popularity has soared both inside and outside scientific circles, a skeptical reaction has evolved. Last year, Kathryn Flinn, an ecologist at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio, argued in Scientific American that Dr. Simard and others had exaggerated the degree of cooperation among trees in forests. Most experts, Dr. Flinn wrote, believe that groups of organisms whose members sacrifice their own interests on behalf of the community rarely evolve, a result of the powerful force of natural selection among competing individuals.

Instead, she suspects, fungi most likely distribute carbon according to their own interests, not those of trees. “That, to me, seems like the simplest explanation,” she said in an interview.

Dr. Jones was a co-author of a paper in 1997 by Suzanne Simard that started the idea of the wood-wide web. Credit…Jennilee Marigomen for The New York Times

Even some who once promoted the idea of shared fungal networks are rethinking the hypothesis. Dr. Jones, one of Dr. Simard’s co-authors in 1997, says she regrets that she and her colleagues wrote in the paper that they had evidence for fungal connections between trees. In fact, Dr. Jones says, they did not examine whether fungi mediated the carbon flows.

For their recent literature review, Dr. Karst, Dr. Hoeksema and Dr. Jones rounded up all the studies they could find that made claims about either the structure or the function of such underground fungal networks. The researchers focused on field studies in forests, not lab or greenhouse experiments.

In an August presentation based on the review at the International Mycorrhiza Society conference in Beijing, Dr. Karst argued that much of the evidence used to support the wood-wide web hypothesis could have other explanations. For example, in many papers, scientists assumed that if they found a particular fungus on multiple tree roots or that resources moved between trees the trees must be directly linked. But few studies ruled out alternate possibilities, for instance that resources could travel part of the way through the soil.

Some experimenters, including Dr. Karst and her colleagues, have installed fine meshes and have sometimes added trenches or air gaps between seedlings to disrupt hypothesized fungal networks and then tested whether those changes altered growth. But those tactics also reduce how much soil a seedling can directly gather nutrients or water from, or they alter the mix of fungi growing inside the meshes, making it difficult to isolate the effect of a fungal network, Dr. Karst said.

The researchers also found a growing number of unsupported statements in the scientific literature about fungal networks connecting and helping trees. Frequently, papers such as Dr. Klein’s are cited by others as providing proof of networks in forests, Dr. Karst and colleagues found, with caveats that appeared in the original work left out of the newer studies.

“Scientists,” Dr. Karst concluded in her presentation, “have become vectors for unsubstantiated claims.” Several recent papers, she notes, have called for changes in how forests are managed, based on the wood-wide web concept.

Jason Hoeksema of the University of Mississippi said a reference to the wood-wide web on “Ted Lasso” motivated him to join a challenge to the idea. He says studies don’t prove trees benefit from fungal networks.Credit…Robert Wayne Lewis for The New York Times

Dr. Karst said, “it’s highly likely” that shared fungal networks do exist in forests. In a 2012 study, Dr. Simard’s team found identical fungal DNA on the roots of nearby Douglas fir trees. The researchers then sampled soil between the trees in thin slices and found the same repeating DNA segments known as “microsatellites” in each slice, confirming that the fungus bridged the gap between the roots. But that study did not examine what resources, if any, were flowing through the network, and few other scientists have mapped fungal networks with such rigor.

Even if intertree fungal networks exist, however, Dr. Karst and her colleagues say common claims about those networks don’t hold up. For example, in many studies, the putative networks appeared to either hinder tree growth or to have no effect. No one has demonstrated that fungi distribute meaningful amounts of resources among trees in ways that increase the fitness of the receiving trees, Dr. Hoeksema said. Yet nearly all discussions of the wood-wide web, scientific or popular, have described it as benefiting trees.

Others, however, remain convinced that time will vindicate the wood-wide web.

While how ubiquitous shared fungal networks are and how important they are to tree growth remain open questions, Dr. Averill of ETH Zurich said the title of Dr. Karst’s presentation — “The decay of the wood-wide web?” — incorrectly suggests that the very concept is faulty. Instead, he hopes scientists will build on the tantalizing clues gathered so far by looking for networks in more forests. Indeed, members of Dr. Karst’s team have generated what Dr. Averill considers some of the most compelling evidence for the wood-wide web.

“It’s very clear that in some forests in some places, different trees are absolutely connected by fungi,” he said.

Dr. Klein of the Weizmann Institute said his team has placed its speculation about a network on firmer ground by using DNA sequences to map fungi in a 2020 follow-up study of the same Swiss forest and a 2022 lab study using forest soil. (Dr. Karst and her colleagues said that in their view, even those studies did not truly map fungal networks in a forest.)

And while Dr. Klein agrees that scientists still need to improve their understanding of why trees and fungi are moving all that carbon around, he is more optimistic than the Karst team that some of the bolder claims will be born out.

“If you ask me if in the future, we will be showing that trees actually can communicate, I would not be surprised,” he said.

Dr. Simard, the University of British Columbia scientist who has studied the wood-wide web, says that mapping fungal networks in forests is challenging, but other methods convinced her they are common.Credit…Jennilee Marigomen for The New York Times

Dr. Simard agreed that few real-world fungal networks have been mapped using DNA microsatellites because of the difficulty in doing such studies. Kevin Beiler, the graduate student who led the field work for the 2012 study with Dr. Simard, “spent five years of his life mapping out these networks,” Dr. Simard said. “It’s very time consuming.”

“The field of mycorrhizal networks has been sort of plagued by having to keep going back and redoing these experiments,” Dr. Simard said. “At some point you have to move to the next step.”

Comprehensive field studies of the type Dr. Hoeksema seeks would be a heavy lift for most university scientists working on typical grant timelines, Dr. Simard said. “None of these studies can do everything all at once, especially when you’re working with graduate students,” she said. “You have to piece it together.”

And while Dr. Simard has for years called for forest managers to consider her findings, she said she was not aware of any forest being managed solely on behalf of fungal networks. Neither was Mr. Wohlleben.

The new critique is the latest flare-up in a decades-old debate about the role of fungi in forest ecosystems, said Merlin Sheldrake, an independent mycologist whose book “Entangled Life” was referenced in the “Ted Lasso” episode that alarmed Dr. Hoeksema. Scientists have long struggled to interpret intriguing but fragmentary shreds of evidence from the invisible underground realm.

Since Dr. Karst gave her talk, she, Dr. Hoeksema and Dr. Jones have submitted a paper to a peer-reviewed journal. And lest you worry that a less webby woods could feel a tad drab, the researchers maintain that there’s plenty of intrigue even if it turns out that trees aren’t whispering secrets to each other via subterranean fungal channels.

“The true story is very interesting without this narrative put on it,” Dr. Karst said. The forest “is still a very mysterious and wonderful place.”

New Biology Chair Aims to Lift Program to New Heights

Posted on: October 25th, 2022 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Sixue Chen brings focus on plant efficiency and desire to increase student opportunities

OXFORD, Miss. – Sixue Chen, an accomplished biological researcher and new chair of the Department of Biology at the University of Mississippi, plans to use agricultural research and outreach to elevate the program nationally.

Chen, who specializes in systems biology of plant stress response, came to UM from the University of Florida, where he conducted research into understanding the mechanisms of more efficient plants in an effort to improve domestic agricultural practices.

His research is motivated by his childhood experience of growing up on a farm, but paradoxically, having little to eat. Chen believes that studying subjects such as the function of microscopic pores on plant leaf surfaces can reveal ways to improve agricultural practices and water conservation.

Sixue Chen, new chair of the Department of Biology, studies the mechanisms of more efficient plants in an effort to improve agricultural practices. Photo by Julia Dent

This approach could help to combat both world hunger and the imminent freshwater crisis as the climate becomes more arid and less conducive to current agricultural methods.

“One way to help stop food insecurity is to make plants more stress resilient,” he said. “After we domesticated the agriculture crops, farmers give these plants tons of water, which takes up 70% of our fresh water resources.

“They don’t consider making plants more drought-tolerant because they assume there will always be plenty of water, but that is not the case anymore. Around the world, countries are experiencing drought conditions, so my lab wants to make plants use water more efficiently, like cacti.”

Another concern related to modern agricultural practices is the effects of hazardous chemicals used for farming, Chen said. Some of these products increase the likelihood of cancer, as carcinogens, in humans who consume the produce or otherwise encounter the pesticides or herbicides.

This is a major concern as cancer is the nation’s No. 2 killer, behind heart disease.

Although he only recently joined the Ole Miss faculty, Chen already has a passion for helping the community and state – chiefly focusing on the future generation of scholars.

“We are a flagship university, so how do we help our citizens out of poverty?” he said. “If we encourage childhood education – make the kids excited to learn science and pursue education – I think that is one way to get out of poverty.

“I was a really poor kid growing up; at that time the only way to get out of poverty was education.”

Chen hopes to propagate a community of diverse, science-loving scholars at the university.

“Connections are important; social and academic events to bring people together provide more and more opportunities – not just for the people, but potentially for the whole world,” he said.

“The connections you make in college can become job opportunities or other collaborative opportunities to advance your career or science, as we know it, later down the line – all because a student had the chance to talk to someone with similar interests in their university.”

Chen’s work promises to improve education and research across the College of Liberal Arts and the entire university, said Donald Dyer, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs and distinguished professor of modern languages.

“His disciplinary know-how will translate into valued leadership and his experience will serve the department well in terms of mentorship and future departmental success. A successful researcher and grant recipient, he will oversee one of the larger faculties in the college and one of the largest undergraduate majors, among other things.”

STEM Facility Construction Nears Halfway Point

Posted on: October 13th, 2022 by cnstewa1 No Comments

Largest academic building in university history to feature innovative lab spaces, TEAL classrooms

The Jim and Thomas Duff Center for Science and Technology Innovation, in the university’s Science District, is on track to open in fall 2024. Construction began a year ago and is approaching the halfway point.

OXFORD, Miss. – Imagine standing in the atrium of the largest academic building in the history of the University of Mississippi‘s main campus. Looking up, four floors of laboratories and lecture halls are all dedicated to increasing STEM student success and teaching.

This vision is quickly becoming a reality as the Jim and Thomas Duff Center for Science and Technology Innovation is approaching 50% complete, and on track to open in fall 2024.

“This space will be a fantastic space,” said Chad Hunter, associate university architect. “It’s an incredible building because of its function, but also simply because of its size.”

The 202,000 square-foot facility will support science, technology, engineering and math-related endeavors at the university. It will include classrooms with low student-instructor ratios, as well as state-of-the-art undergraduate lab spaces. The building is anticipated to be one of the nation’s top facilities for STEM education.

Kurt Shettles, president and CEO of McCarty Architects, is the project’s architect of record. He said the center stands out among other buildings at Ole Miss because of its interdisciplinary nature and the broad audience that it will serve.

It is unique in many ways, one of which is the teaching style that it supports.

The Duff Center will include more than 50 TEAL classrooms, traditional labs and classrooms to accommodate some 2,000 students at a time. The building will be equipped with technology to support a range of teaching methods and support interactive learning.

“We’ve used the term ‘Swiss watch’ when referencing the science labs in the building,” Shettles said. “They are extremely intricate and designed for flexible teaching pedagogy.

“We have ‘TEAL’ classrooms, which are technology-enabled active learning classrooms. They support a different method of instruction with less lecture and more demonstration and participation. The students learn through the technology and the process of interacting and collaborating with each other, while the professor is more of a participant in that process, as opposed to just standing in front of the classroom lecturing.”

The Center for Science and Technology Innovation will include more than 50 TEAL classrooms, traditional labs and classrooms to accommodate some 2,000 students at any given hour throughout the day, Hunter said. It will also have a dedicated center for success and supplemental instruction, study rooms, a food service venue, more than 60 faculty offices and a 3D visualization lab, which is like a small IMAX theater.

The building is in the heart of the UM Science District. Construction is presently focused on the exterior – tasks such as installing windows, weatherproofing, waterproofing and laying brick. Once the exterior walls and roof are completed in the next couple of months, construction will begin on interior walls and finishes.

Cristiane Surbeck, chair and professor of civil engineering, can see the construction from her office window. She is eagerly anticipating the opening, which will have a major impact on her department.

“I’ve been taking a photo of it almost every day,” Surbeck said. “It’s going to provide a big upgrade to the teaching spaces that we have now. There’s going to be a specific room for civil engineering students to work on their senior design projects. It’s laid out for them to be able to work together in a space that is dedicated just for them.

“We are also going to have a water resources engineering and environmental engineering teaching lab that our students are really going to be able to take advantage of. It can even be shared among different departments if they have students who are doing experiments with water and environmental pollutants.”

The center will be an asset to the university community – especially its students, Surbeck said.

Among the many features of the Duff Center is an environmental engineering teaching lab that will provide a major resource for civil engineering students and anyone conducting experiments with water and environmental pollutants.

“I’m proud that we will have such a modern building that we are going to use to educate our engineering students,” she said. “I believe our engineering students are going to feel the same way. They are going to feel confident to go out and practice as engineers, having been educated in a such a high-quality facility.”

A new animated walk-through of the building’s interior gives viewers a better sense of the layout.

“You can see all four floors from the atrium; you can orient yourself by standing in it,” Hunter said. “The laboratories also have large windows, so you can observe what’s going on inside.

“It was designed this way on purpose to promote collaborative and interdisciplinary teaching and learning.”

Shettles said he hopes that once the center opens, students will find a home there.

“As designers, the best compliment we could receive would be to see students using this building even if they don’t have a class there,” he said. “We would love it to be a hangout destination for students simply because of the quality of the interior and exterior spaces, and because it promotes engagement and collaboration.”

Brothers Jim and Thomas Duff, of Hattiesburg, have committed $26 million to the construction of the building. The total project cost is $175 million, with $135 million in construction expenses.

Hunter has been part of the project since it was first imagined some 10 years ago.

“It’s a major honor to be part of this project,” he said. “To work so long on something and then seeing it actually being built is amazing.”

Undergraduate Student Publishes Sleep Research Paper

Posted on: October 3rd, 2022 by cnstewa1 No Comments

UM senior studies correlation between brain anatomy and sleep duration

September 28, 2022 by Erin Garrett

Nicole Jones (left) and communication sciences professor Tossi Ikuta go over brain scans at the South Oxford Center.

UM biology major Nicole Jones (left) and communication sciences professor Tossi Ikuta go over brain scans at the South Oxford Center. Under Ikuta’s supervision, Jones has been using the scans to explore how brain structure affects sleep. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

A University of Mississippi senior has published a scientific paper on one of the most essential human needs: sleep.

Nicole Jones, a biology major in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, is investigating whether the size of the caudate nucleus, a structural component of the brain, can be linked to how long people sleep.

“Research based on sleep has been very interesting to me,” Jones said. “I think it’s really cool that there isn’t much out there on it and it’s a hard concept to study.

“Based on what was available, I was able to narrow my project down to look at size-related data of different areas of the brain and sleep duration data.”

The paper, “Sleep Duration is Associated with Caudate Volume and Executive Function,” was published in Brain Imaging and Behavior’s online edition, with a print edition forthcoming. The bimonthly, peer-reviewed publication features research that uses neuroimaging to study higher brain function.

Tossi Ikuta, associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, has advised Jones on her honors thesis and is co-author on the paper. Undergraduate student research is rarely published before a student graduates, he said.

“People with doctorate degrees strive to publish in this journal,” Ikuta said. “Nikki has accomplished her publication even before her bachelor’s degree.

“I have seen undergraduate students listed as one of the authors in a peer-reviewed journal. However, it is as unusual as an elementary school student doing linear algebra.”

Nicole Jones works alongside communication sciences professor Tossi Ikuta.

Nicole Jones works alongside communication sciences professor Tossi Ikuta in his digital neuroscience lab at the South Oxford Center. She authored a paper recently published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, a remarkable achievement for an undergraduate researcher. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The caudate nucleus is a pair of structures within the medial part of the brain, the basal ganglia. The caudate is associated with high-level functioning such as memory, learning, reward and motivation. This level of functioning can be linked to sleep, Jones said.

“That’s why we started there,” Jones said. “We found that the size and volume of the caudate nucleus was correlated with sleep duration, which means the larger the size of the caudate was in the subject’s brain, the longer they would sleep.”

This was initially found across all age ranges in the study, which included more than 400 people ages 10-85. Upon closer investigation, Jones and Ikuta discovered that the association came primarily from the younger population.

The results bring scientists one step closer to understanding the role of the caudate in sleep, Ikuta said.

“The caudate nucleus is known to be involved in insomnia, but its role in sleep is not very clear,” he said. “We were able to show that the size of the caudate nucleus matters.”

Jones, a native of Nolensville, Tennessee, enrolled at Ole Miss based on its welcoming atmosphere. She had yet to realize the opportunities for firsthand research experience at the university.

“After touring the university in high school, I knew I wanted to come here,” she said. “It’s an intimate campus, but also big enough that I thought there would be lots of opportunities.

“I never realized that I would be publishing a paper – it was a huge surprise to me.”

After graduation, Jones hopes to continue on a path related to research and science in general. She said that her experience working with Ikuta grew her confidence in this area.

“Writing a journal and co-authoring with someone who is well-known in their field was really nerve-racking in the beginning, but Dr. Ikuta grew my confidence and put my ideas out there,” she said. “I would encourage other students to try research, even if it’s just dabbling in it on a volunteer basis.”