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Trait relationships of fungal decomposers in response to drought using a dual field and laboratory approach

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Decomposer fungi play a fundamental role in terrestrial ecosystem dynamics. In the southwestern United States, climate change is causing more frequent and severe droughts, which may alter fungal community composition and activity. Investigating relationships between fungal traits may improve the prediction of fungal responses to drought. In this dual field and laboratory experiment, we examine whether trade-offs occur between traits associated with drought. Specifically, we test the hypothesis that fungi sort into lifestyles specializing in growth yield, resource acquisition, and drought stress tolerance (“YAS” framework). For the field experiment, we constructed microbial “cages” containing sterilized litter and 1 of 10 fungal isolates. These cages were placed in long-term drought and control plots in a southern Californian grassland for 6 and 12 months. We measured fungal hyphal length per unit litter mass loss for growth yield, the potential activities of four extracellular enzymes for resource acquisition, and the ability to grow in the drought versus control plots for drought stress tolerance. We compared these results with a laboratory microcosm experiment constructed with the same fungal isolates and that measured the same fungal traits. The field experiment corroborated our laboratory results, in that no trade-offs were observed between growth yield and resource acquisition traits. However, in contrast to the laboratory experiment, drought tolerance was negatively related to extracellular enzyme activity and growth yield in the field, implying a trade-off. Despite this observed trade-off in the field, growth yield was not hindered by drought. We propose a modification to the YAS framework, by combining the growth yield and resource acquisition lifestyles, which may be more appropriate for this arid system. This joint laboratory and field approach contextualizes a theoretical framework in microbial ecology and improves understanding of fungal community response to climate change.

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