Unearthing how climate change affects soil ecology

Dr. John Klironomos dishes dirt with the best of them.

The renowned microbiologist, based at UBC’s Okanagan campus, stands at the leading edge of a field once ignored in ecology yet today considered crucial: soil.

Klironomos’ groundbreaking research in soil ecology is helping scientists to better understand how native plants species will respond to climate change, and the causes and consequences of invasive species. His findings also have important implications for successful land rehabilitation.

At UBC Okanagan’s Plant and Soil Ecology Lab, Klironomos leads a team of skilled researchers—comprised of students and scientists from UBC Okanagan and around the world—studying mycorrhizal fungi.

These 500-million-year-old microscopic organisms colonize a plant’s root system and radically enhance a plant’s own ability to hold onto water and extract nutrients from the soil.

Through large-scale, complex, and creative experiments both in the field and in the lab, Klironomos’ research team has unearthed vital connections between what’s happening to the mycorrhizal fungi below the ground and biodiversity on the earth’s surface.

Native plants depend heavily of mycorrhizal fungi for their growth, and Klironomos’ research indicates that this dependency will become even more extreme as the earth’s climate changes. In contrast, many exotic invasive species are not mycorrhizal-dependent—and they are antagonistic towards the fungi and degrade them in the soil.

Says Klironomos: “As the climate changes, we expect that invasive plants will negatively affect the stability of native plan communities by harming their microscopic fungal partners.”

Klironomos says his original research proposal was “considered ‘too risky’ because the fungi are difficult to work with. You cannot simply stick your head in the ground and directly observe them in nature.

“But UBC gave me the green light and helped me build a lab that is giving me the chance to prove to the world just how vital these remarkable fungi are to the diversity of plant life on the planet.”


Video created by UBC ISI / Prospective Student Communications


Klironomos is a busy professor both on campus and off. In addition to conducting his research, he is the university’s Associate Dean of Research and Strategic Planning at the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences. He also collaborates on projects and speaks at institutions across the globe, and is a sought-after contributor to leading ecological journals.

In 2014, Klironomos was recognized for his outstanding contributions to science and named a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, adding one of our country’s most distinguished honours to his already substantial collection of awards and credentials.

At UBC’s Okanagan campus, Klironomos is regarded as an engaging and enthusiastic biology professor who embraces the university’s culture of bold research by encouraging his students to take risks.

“The few papers of mine that have received attention were from high-risk projects,” he says. “Even if you follow a lead down the wrong path, you are still discovering something, and still learning.”



Related Stories