The Piedmont region of the southeastern United States has undergone considerable land-use change since settlement by Europeans and Africans. Forests were cleared for agriculture, followed centuries later by land abandonment. Following abandonment, natural recruitment, plantings for erosion control, and plantation forestry have resulted in a large area of the region covered by loblolly pine, Pinus taeda. Today, the Piedmont is a mosaic of farm fields, pastures, pine forests, and relic woodlots. The Calhoun Experimental Forest, located in Union County, SC, has provided a unique history of land use change’s alteration of soil properties and processes, the ability of reforestation to restore or deplete soil fertility, and provided insights into the effects this change has on biological diversity.
In this work, the diversity of fungi living in soil is examined in the context of land-use change and soil biogeochemical change in and around the Calhoun Forest. This study uses molecular tools to identify fungal species from soil and to identify mycorrhizal associates of loblolly pine in a bioassay of propagule diversity, and proposes a novel use of quantitative PCR to quantify the relative abundance of major fungal families affected by land-use change.
Fungal diversity in soils is high in all land uses, but fungal communities shift from agricultural field communities largely comprised of unicellular ascomycetes and basal lineages to forest communities dominated by saprophytic and symbiotic basidiomycetes. In addition to this shift across a land use gradient, fungal communities are also responding to changes in carbon quantity and quality, biologically available nitrogen and phosphorus, pH, acidity and texture.
ECM propagule communities also differ across a land use gradient of cultivated fields, grasslands, pine forests, and mixed hardwood stands. There are few ECM propagules able to associate with loblolly pine in cultivated and grassland soils. There is a trend towards higher ECM diversity in the hardwood and pine soils, and both of those soil communities are distinct from each other as well as from soils from field treatments.
Quantitative PCR, coupled with a nested set of taxon-specific, fungal primers, is a potential way to estimate the abundance of the given taxon relative to all fungi in an environmental DNA. Primers specific to several taxonomic level of fungi were tested to confirm amplification in PCR, then were tested for taxonomic specificity by generating clone libraries with environmental DNA. Several of the successful primers were tested with soil DNA extracts in QPCR and the calculated ratios of fungal abundance varied widely by method of analysis. The results suggest that many repeated measurements and many replicates are required for a robust estimate of the relative abundance of a specific taxon.