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Did Past Climate Change Encourage Tree-Killing Fungi?

The demise of the world's forests some 250 million years ago likely was accelerated by aggressive tree-killing fungi triggered by global climate change, according to a new study by a University of California, Berkeley, scientist and her Dutch and British colleagues.

The researchers do not rule out the possibility that today's changing climate could cause a similar increase in pathogenic soil bacteria that could devastate forests already stressed by a warming climate and pollution.

The study, available online Aug. 5, will be published in the September 2011 print edition of the journal Geology of the Geological Society of America.

The death of the forests -- primarily composed of conifers, which are distant relatives of today's pines and firs -- was part of the largest extinction of life on Earth, which occurred when today's continents were part of one supercontinent, Pangaea. The so-called Permian extinction likely was triggered by immense volcanic eruptions in what is now Siberia. The huge amounts of gas and dust thrown into the atmosphere altered global climate, and some 95 percent of marine organisms and 70 percent of land organisms eventually went extinct.

The scientists claim that thread-like or filamentous microfossils commonly preserved in Permian rock are relatives of a group of fungi, Rhizoctonia, that today is known for members that attack and kill plants.

"Modern Rhizoctonia include some of the most ubiquitous plant pathogens, causing root, stem and foliar diseases in a wide variety of plants," said coauthor Cindy Looy, UC Berkeley assistant professor of integrative biology. "Based on patterns of present-day forest decline, it is likely that fungal disease has been an essential accessory in woodland destabilization, accelerating widespread tree mortality during the end-Permian crisis."
 
 

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