Delivering food from forests: integrating understanding across trees, fungi and soils to raise speciality crops in forest plantations

Overview

The current emphasis on expanding woodland cover in the UK has the potential to create significant conflict with food production systems. Agroforestry, in which food production is combined with timber crops, has the potential to reconcile food production and forestry yet a poor understanding of high yielding and economically attractive production systems restricts its practice in the UK. Many tree species grown in the UK form a mutualist association (mycorrhizae) with fungi that produce edible fruiting bodies, providing great potential for incorporation into agroforestry systems.

The saffron milkcap (Lactarius deliciosus) is an ectomycorrhizal fungus that produces highly appreciated edible fruiting bodies. This species has a broad European distribution, but is more common in the north of the UK than the south. It forms mycorrhizae with coniferous trees and particularly pines (Pinus species). Since 2007 small-scale experiments in the cultivation of this species have been successful in Europe as well as New Zealand where reported yields have reached 490 Kg/Ha. Scots pine is one of the UKs major forestry crops and so the combination of valued edible fungi (5-23GBP/Kg) and this commercially and ecologically important tree partner, presents the opportunity to develop a system that combines food production with forest expansion.

The successful development of a reliable, cost-effective production method for saffron milkcap crops would incentivise landowners to plant new woodland at the same time as bringing larger areas of the UK into sustainable food production. This agroforestry approach would be a valuable contribution to UK resource security at a time when the UK is struggling with ways to boost tree planting rates and to mitigate the land-use-conflict of food production and forest expansion.

This interdisciplinary PhD project combines biotechnology with microbiology, agroforestry and environmental niche and economic impact modelling to develop the methods required for the successful implementation of this agroforestry system in the UK and evaluate its potential impact.

The project centres on the following objectives:

1) To determine the environmental associations of wild L. deliciosus fruiting body production, thereby enabling us to best target new forest locations for agroforestry development.
2) To develop the methods required for inoculation of host trees that will support fruit body production. Initially this approach will involve developing cultures from collected fruiting bodies and optimising methods to scale fermentation of the mycelium. The work will also involve strain selection, plant partner selection and inoculation methods of tree stock.
3) To determine the effectiveness of inoculation in realistic field conditions. This objective will centre on assessing success of inoculation of young seedlings through field trials in a range of planting conditions and locations, including assessing differences in existing fungal community composition.
4) To assess the potential impact of the rollout of this agroforestry system in the UK using a) environmental niche modelling to assess where in the UK this dual-cropping approach will be most productive based on occurrence, climate and soil data, and b) the likely impact on timber yield class and food production per unit area, for a range of climate and soil scenarios.

Methodology

To work towards the objectives above, an integrated approach will be required employing methods from
1) Microbiology/mycology to enable the isolation, culture and selection of appropriate fungal strains
2) Fungal genomics and soil metagenomics to enable characterisation of soil microbial/fungal communities and identify successful mycorrhizal development
3) Bioinformatics to process and analyse the data gained in 2) above
4) Field methods including site assessment and characterisation, plantation planning and establishment.
5) Data analytical and modelling methods to characterise community composition and variation and deliver scenario-based projections of productivity, carbon stocking and crop yield/value.
Placements will take place with the CASE partner to finalise method development and set up field trials in a variety of experimental locations in the UK.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Literature review centring on potential and development of mycoforestry. Assess the natural distribution of L. deliciosus and characterise its associations with particular climatic and habitat characteristics from pre-existing data. Optimise culture techniques to raise inoculation stocks -we’ve already started some off so you should have cultures to play with as soon as you start! Identify candidate trial stands for inoculation.

Year 2

Assess soil community composition within and between stands to understand the extent and scale of natural heterogeneity in community composition. Conduct initial assessments of inoculation success. Finalise work on culture techniques and strain characterisation.

Year 3

Harvest of inoculated trees to determine when, where and with which fungal strains inoculation is most successful. Finalise fungal community ecology analyses. Develop scenario modelling work around potential yield and trade-offs with timber production based on host species identity and planting density.

Year 3.5

Complete analysis of inoculation data and develop inoculation protocol paper. Finalise modelling analysis and write up evidence-base on L. deliciosus mycoforestry perspectives.

Training
& Skills

You will benefit from training in field-based practical implementation techniques as well as guidance in enterprise and commercial development. This training and guidance from the industry partner, Prof. Paul Thomas, will be offered through a combination of a minimum of 3 months spent at the company, support at the University of Stirling microbiology laboratories and regular structured meetings. The industry partner has existing PhD supervision experience and, therefore, an established track record of working effectively with academic supervisors in project development and implementation.

Primary academic supervisor, Prof. Alistair Jump will be responsible for the day-to-day direction of the PhD and specific training in aspects of forestry, tree culturing and growth assessment alongside characterisation of tree health and biomass determination.

Prof Paul Thomas will deliver broad and industry relevant training in mycology and microbiology as the industry partner, specifically microbiology techniques for culturing mycorrhizal fungi and the commercial implementation of such cultures for large-scale inoculated-tree production (and cultivation).

Dr Roy Sanderson will provide training in multivariate modelling of soil microbial communities. This will include constrained ordination methods to model soil microbial community similarities in response to their environment in addition to multi-scale approaches that account for the inherent spatial heterogeneity characteristic of most soil systems. These techniques will also aid identification of biotic and abiotic factors most likely to influence the success of host inoculations in the context of pre-existing conditions.

Further project-tailored training opportunities will be provided in discussion with the supervisory team and delivered via institutional, DTP-based or commercial routes to ensure that you are fully equipped with the skills to develop your practical work, collect and analyse your data and craft the publications you will develop from your research findings.

References & further reading

Borcard, D., Gillet, F., Legendre, P. (2011) Numerical ecology with R. Springer
Bull, A., Idris, H., Sanderson, R., Asenjo, J., Andrews, B., Goodfellow, M. (2018). High altitude hyper-arid soils of the central Andes harbour megadiverse communities of actinobacteria. Extremophiles, 22, 47-57.
Endo N., F. Kawamura, R. Kitahara, D. Sakuma, M. Fukuda and A. Yamada (2014) Synthesis of Japanese Boletus edulis ectomycorrhizae with Japanese red pine. Mycoscience 55:405-416.
Guerin-Laguette A., N. Cummings, R. C. Butler, A. Willows, N. Hesom-Williams, S. Li and Y. Wang (2014) Lactarius deliciosus and Pinus radiata in New Zealand: towards the development of innovative gourmet mushroom orchards. Mycorrhiza 24:511-523.
Suárez J., Villada D., Oria de Rueda J., Alves-Santos F., Diez J. 2018 Effects of Lactarius deliciosus and Rhizopogon roseolus ectomycorrhyzal fungi on seeds and seedlings of Scots and stone pines inoculated with Fusarium oxysporum and Fusarium verticillioides, The Forestry Chronicle, 94: 126-134,

Further Information

For further information and to discuss a potential application, please contact Prof. Jump at a.s.jump@stir.ac.uk

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