Fungi play a key role in ecosystem nutrient cycles by scavenging, concentrating, translocating and redistributing nitrogen. To quantify and predict fungal nitrogen redistribution, and assess the importance of the integrity of fungal networks in soil for ecosystem function, we need better understanding of the structures and processes involved. Until recently nitrogen translocation has been experimentally intractable owing to the lack of a suitable radioisotope tracer for nitrogen, and the impossibility of observing nitrogen translocation in real time under realistic conditions. We have developed an imaging method for recording the magnitude and direction of amino acid flow through the whole mycelial network as it captures, assimilates and channels its carbon and nitrogen resources, while growing in realistically heterogeneous soil microcosms. Computer analysis and modeling, based on these digitized video records, can reveal patterns in transport that suggest experimentally testable hypotheses. Experimental approaches that we are developing include genomics and stable isotope NMR to investigate where in the system nitrogen compounds are being acquired and stored, and where they are mobilized for transport or broken down. The results are elucidating the interplay between environment, metabolism, and the development and function of transport networks as mycelium forages in soil. The highly adapted and selected foraging networks of fungi may illuminate fundamental principles applicable to other supply networks
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