There is fungus among us, according to Peter Avis, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Indiana University Northwest. That’s not a bad thing, Avis insists, depending on what kind of fungus we’re talking about, and where it’s found.
If it’s in your basement, that’s probably not good, he admits. But if the fungus in question is a mushroom growing in Miller Woods, a stretch of national parkland located right next to U.S. Steel in Gary, well, that’s just the sort of fungus Avis is looking for. And finding it might help the IU Northwest scientist gauge the effects of pollution and global change on the local ecosystem.
“Fungi aren’t plants or animals … they’re in their own kingdom,” Avis explained during a recent trip to Miller Woods, where he monitors fungal growth in the temperate oak savannah that dominates this part of the park. “If we were to pull up the roots of most of these trees, they would have fungi attached.”
There are, Avis explained, several types of fungal lifestyles. Decomposers are the variety that can be seen growing out of felled logs or other dead organic matter. Pathogenic fungus is the kind that draws sustenance from living matter, to the host’s detriment. And mutualists are a type of fungus that coexist with other organisms, such as trees, swapping nutrients and minerals in a sort of natural-world version of the New York Stock Exchange.
Mutualists are a focus of Avis’s research; in particular, he’s interested in mycorrhiza, or root mutualists. These fungi attach themselves to roots and trade nutrients with the host plant.
Avis said that imbalances in an ecosystem caused by air pollution would reveal themselves through changes in these fungal relationships. An excess of nitrogen in the environment, for example, could spell trouble for any fungus that trades nitrogen to trees in exchange for other substances, like the sugars that plants are good at producing. And other fungi, depending on their specialty, may thrive because of certain ecological imbalances.
It’s the law of supply and demand, Avis explained, but some fungi are able to beat this system and thrive in conditions that would lead other fungal species into organic bankruptcy. The challenge, he said, is to figure out how and why, and thereby better understand pollution’s long-term effects on the entire ecosystem.
For Avis, a Michigan native who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and did post-doctoral work at Chicago’s Field Museum, Miller Woods and the Dunes National Lakeshore make an ideal outside laboratory. The black oak savannah in Miller Woods is a fragment of what used to exist in the area prior to the industrialization and suburban sprawl that now define so much of Northwest Indiana.
Air pollution from industry, combined with excess nitrogen deposits that are the result of years of fertilizer use on Midwestern farms, have set the table for Avis’s research.
“You can’t ask for a better place to do research than this,” said Avis, who joined IU Northwest in 2007. “Where else are you going to find a national park that sits right next to steel mills? As an environmental biologist, this is exactly where I want to be.”
As a biologist, Avis says, he understands the ill effects of pollution caused by industry. But for Miller Woods, the proximity of a steel mill is probably the reason why this stretch of temperate oak savannah remains undisturbed in the 21st century.
“Nobody wanted to build houses next door to a steel mill,” he said. “If it weren’t for the mill being here, this place would probably look like Naperville.“