Warming temperatures are prompting some tree species in the Rocky Mountains to "migrate" to higher elevations in order to survive. Researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have discovered that tiny below-ground organisms play a role in this phenomenon -- and could be used to encourage tree migration in order to preserve heat-sensitive species. The scientists’ work shows how these invisible biotic communities create "soil highways" for young trees, meaning they could determine how quickly species march uphill, if at all. The newfound role of the soil microbiome -- the collection of microscopic bacteria, fungi, and archaea that interact with plant roots -- represents a turning point for research aimed at understanding and predicting where important tree species will reside in the future. Just as human microbiome research is rapidly changing our perspectives on human health and behavior, the interactions between trees and their soil microbiomes may dramatically change how we think about the health and behavior of forests. The study was published online on April 28, 2017 in Nature Ecology and Evolution. The article is titled “Divergent Plant–Soil Feedbacks Could Alter Future Elevation Ranges and Ecosystem Dynamics.” The researchers' goal was to better understand how plants will respond as temperatures rise. “One general expectation is that tree ranges will gradually move toward higher elevations as mountain habitats get hotter," said Michael Van Nuland, the project's lead researcher and a doctoral student in UT's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. "It is easy to see the evidence with photographs that compare current and historical tree lines on mountainsides around the world. Most document that tree lines have ascended in the past century."
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