The University of Idaho receives a federal grant to study forest resilience

Many microbes and tree species have evolved to be resistant to wildfires. Still, some forests are struggling to recover. Some researchers at the University of Idaho received a federal grant to study how climate change is affecting the relationship between the smallest organisms and their surrounding ecosystems.

Tara Hudiburg, a professor of rangeland and fire science at the University of Idaho, has spent most of her career studying how drought and wildfire affect carbon storage in trees, but she says she's become increasingly curious about the role played by tiny fungi and bacteria in the trees.

“Trees feed sugar to microbes on their roots, and the microbes use that as a carbon source,” she said. “Then when they metabolize that organic matter, they release nitrogen, and that's a nitrogen source for the trees.”

A desire to learn more about this connection led her to team up with microbiologists on a new project called EMBER (Embedding Molecular Biology in Ecosystem Research), which recently received a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation, to figure out how to help forests survive.

“If they stop functioning on a planetary scale and continue to absorb CO2 at the current rate, then we have a bigger problem to solve,” Hudiburg said.

Part of the project involves depriving an experimental forest of water and snow for three years, setting it on fire and then studying how everything from the treetops to the microbes in the roots responds.

EMBER also includes a partnership with the Coeur d'Alene Tribe to establish an Indigenous Innovation Lab. In this lab, tribal members will conduct research to quantify the impacts of cultural fires, among other things.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on X @racheld_cohen

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