Fungi play key roles in carbon (C) dynamics of ecosystems: saprotrophs decompose organic material and return C in the nutrient cycle, and mycorrhizal species support plants that accumulate C through photosynthesis. The identities and functions of extremophile fungi present after fire can influence C dynamics, particularly because plant-fungal relationships are often species-specific. However, little is known about the function and distribution of fungi that survive fires. We aim to assess the distribution of heat-resistant soil fungi across burned stands of boreal forest in the Northwest Territories, Canada, and understand their functions in relation to decomposition and tree seedling growth. We cultured and identified fungi from heat-treated soils and linked sequences from known taxa with high throughput sequencing fungal data (Illumina MiSeq, ITS1) from soils collected in 47 plots. We assessed functions under controlled conditions by inoculating litter and seedlings with heat-resistant fungi to assess decomposition and effects on seedling growth, respectively, for black spruce ( Picea mariana ), birch ( Betula papyrifera ), and jack pine ( Pinus banksiana ). We also measured litter decomposition rates and seedling densities in the field without inoculation. We isolated seven taxa of heat-resistant fungi and found their relative abundances were not associated with environmental or fire characteristics. Under controlled conditions, Fayodia gracilipes and Penicillium arenicola decomposed birch, but no taxa decomposed black spruce litter significantly more than the control treatment. Seedlings showed reduced biomass and/or mortality when inoculated with at least one of the fungal taxa. Penicillium turbatum reduced growth and/or caused mortality of all three species of seedlings. In the field, birch litter decomposed faster in stands with greater pre-fire proportion of black spruce, while black spruce litter decomposed faster in stands experiencing longer fire-free intervals. Densities of seedlings that had germinated since fire were positively associated with ectomycorrhizal richness while there were fewer conifer seedlings with greater heat-resistant fungal abundance. Overall, our study suggests that extremophile fungi present after fires have multiple functions and may have unexpected negative effects on forest functioning and regeneration. In particular, heat-resistant fungi after fires may promote shifts away from conifer dominance that are observed in these boreal forests.
Wildfire is the dominant disturbance in boreal forests and fire activity is increasing in these regions. Soil fungal communities are important for plant growth and nutrient cycling postfire but there is little understanding of how fires impact fungal communities across landscapes, fire severity gradients, and stand types in boreal forests. Understanding relationships between fungal community composition, particularly mycorrhizas, and understory plant composition is therefore important in predicting how future fire regimes may affect vegetation. We used an extreme wildfire event in boreal forests of Canada's Northwest Territories to test drivers of fungal communities and assess relationships with plant communities. We sampled soils from 39 plots 1 year after fire and 8 unburned plots. High-throughput sequencing (MiSeq, ITS) revealed 2,034 fungal operational taxonomic units. We found soil pH and fire severity (proportion soil organic layer combusted), and interactions between these drivers were important for fungal community structure (composition, richness, diversity, functional groups). Where fire severity was low, samples with low pH had higher total fungal, mycorrhizal, and saprotroph richness compared to where severity was high. Increased fire severity caused declines in richness of total fungi, mycorrhizas, and saprotrophs, and declines in diversity of total fungi and mycorrhizas. The importance of stand age (a surrogate for fire return interval) for fungal composition suggests we could detect long-term successional patterns even after fire. Mycorrhizal and plant community composition, richness, and diversity were weakly but significantly correlated. These weak relationships and the distribution of fungi across plots suggest that the underlying driver of fungal community structure is pH, which is modified by fire severity. This study shows the importance of edaphic factors in determining fungal community structure at large scales, but suggests these patterns are mediated by interactions between fire and forest stand composition.