A SHORT SUMMARY OF THE FESIN FORUM, ESA 2007
Tom Bruns and Peter Kennedy
FESIN held an open forum on Sunday August 5 at the Ecological Society of American Annual meeting at San Jose, California. The meeting was attended by about 25 people, and approximately a quarter were students or postdocs. The meeting started with a short introduction to what FESIN is and what it hopes to accomplish.
We then conducted a short survey of the attendees to find out what their backgrounds and interests were. When asked "is the primary focus of your research the ecology of fungi or ecology that necessarily involves fungi?" roughly three quarters responded "ecology that necessarily involves fungi". Many of the attendees working on fungi used molecular techniques and manipulated fungi in culture or experiments in various ways, and they reported some difficulties with both approaches. The attendees went regularly to either ESA or MSA, some went to ICOM (International Conference on Mycorrhizae), and very few attended either ASM (American Society of Microbiology) or SES (Soil Ecology Society). Most had some formal training with fungi and were currently at an institution with courses on fungi. Only about three people were involved with teaching such courses, but most said that they incorporated fungal examples into ecology courses they taught.
Most of the meeting was devoted to an open discussion on broader research projects that could be facilitated by FESIN. Studying diversity of fungi at broad geographic scales had much support. Ideas along these lines included studying diversity patterns on latitudinal gradients to test whether fungal patterns match that of other organisms, or studying fungi in large regions such as the boreal forest, or the Pacific Rim. Comparing entire fungal communities on congeneric host plants from different continents was also suggested. In conjunction with such surveys it was agreed that it would be critical to have a standard design for surveying fungi. The idea of a standard protocol was also embraced by many of the participants as a stand-alone goal, but others thought that techniques were currently in too much of a state of flux for standardization to be useful outside the context of a particular study.
Database deficiencies were discussed. There was widespread agreement that the saprobic fungi were grossly underrepresented in sequence databases. For mycorrhizal fungi, there was interest in adding sequences that come from outside of currently well-studied groups. For example, for ectomycorrhizal fungi, this means greater sampling of fungi associated with hosts other than the Pinaceae and oaks. Less time was spent talking about plant pathogenic fungi and endophytes, but when the topic was brought up it was clear that this was another area of huge deficiency in the sequence databases especially for fungi associated with non-crop plants. Participants were relieved to hear that ITS had been chosen as the bar coding locus for fungi, but thought that some large subunit sequence was still currently necessary to identify fungi because of the current deficiencies of the available ITS data. Some researchers said that they have internal databases from environmental samples and have chosen not to add in their sequences to databases such as GenBank because they didnít see the utility of adding more unknown sequences. The counterpoint was made that knowing about the distribution of fungi even if we cannot name them is still valuable (e.g. Chris Schadtís alpine clade).
The idea of archiving ecological datasets to facilitate later comparative studies and meta-analysis was discussed. It was mentioned that this is something that NSF is currently working on and FESIN members may be good advisers once NSF has a system in place.
Having training sessions at both ESA and MSA to show researchers how to include fungi into ecological studies was suggested. For ecologists, this might include a training session on the basics of molecular identification or cultural manipulations. For the mycologists, this may be a primer on ecological methods such as sample design. There was interest in having a mycology workshop next summer at ESA. David LeBauer (UC Riverside) emailed a proposal to help organize and run such a workshop at ESA next year. The deadline to propose such a workshop for ESA is Dec 3, 2007.
It was pointed out that bacterial ecologists have been effective in catching the attention of general ecologists recently. They did this largely by seeing if ecological principles developed for macro-organisms held for micro-organisms and attacking hypotheses such as that of Bass-Becking "everything is everywhere" dogma. Ideally fungal ecologists could also make use of a similar strategy? To do so we need to identify hypotheses that have long been held that could now be tested with the new tools we have available. The ideas discussed above about latitudinal gradients might come close to this goal.
For those with an ecosystems interest the link between fungal diversity and ecosystem function remains a "Holy Grail" question. Because fungi play such important functional roles in terrestrial ecosystems, particularly in carbon cycling, this is seems like an obvious focus. There is currently some ability to assay functional genes (lactases, cellulases, etc.) in fungi, but it is not currently possible to connect these functions to identified species.
Linking fungal studies with LTER and NEON sites was discussed. It was suggested that surveying all of the LTER sites for their fungal communities would be a worthwhile goal because it would facilitate further work on fungi at these sites. Some LTER sites have prior or ongoing fungal projects that would be a good place to start, but most (all?) of these projects target specific ecological groups of fungi.
How could FESIN facilitate the consolidation of existing web-based information on fungi? Programs like MEKA (http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/meacham/meka/) at UC Berkeley herbaria or the IDnature guides found on Discoverlife.org (http://www.discoverlife.org/) provide a good template of a synoptic online keys. The Encyclopedia of Life (http://www.eol.org/) has many of the same goals as FESIN and would very likely be open to collaboration. Of course, two of these were mentioned in the original FESIN proposal, but it was interesting to see that others knew about them and viewed them as ideal models.
Aside from the FESIN forum, about 80 fliers were distributed during multiple sessions of the ESA meeting. FESIN was also announced in at least two such sessions, and word of mouth seemed to carry the message to many that were not able to attend the meeting. Overall people were excited by FESIN and looking forward to the first real meeting at the ESA meeting in Milwaukee in 2008.