VUB professor investigates adaptability of fungus and pines from Fukushima nuclear site

VUB professor investigates adaptability of fungus and pines from Fukushima nuclear site

Professor in plant genetics and microbiology Joske Ruytinx from the Department of Bio-Engineering at the VUB has received a grant from the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI). She will investigate the effect of radionuclides (radioactive particles) on ectomycorrhiza, a symbiosis between a fungus and a plant, in this case pines. Ruytinx is receiving support from the JGI on sophisticated research infrastructure to sequence RNA and DNA from a variety of fungal samples.

“Under normal conditions, symbiosis between the mycorrhizal fungus and the plant consists of a network of mycelial filaments that supply water and minerals, while the host plant produces carbon compounds (e.g. sugars) for the fungus,” Ruytinx explains. In this process, the mycelium network can also act as a filter to block contaminants such as heavy metals. “A symbiosis like this can play an important role in the survival of plants in polluted areas, and in extreme cases even radioactive contamination.”

Young fir tree with mycorrhizal mycelium threads around the roots © Laura Coninx
Young fir tree with mycorrhizal mycelium threads around the roots © Laura Coninx

To investigate the impact of radiation on genetic diversity and long-term symbiosis, Ruytinx is working with researchers from Fukushima University, the Belgian nuclear research centre SCK CEN and the universities of Colorado and Florida. During field studies, they took samples of fungi and pines from inside and outside the danger zone of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where a nuclear disaster occurred following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

The fungi are now part of a collection at the VUB. They were exposed to radiation at SCK CEN in Mol to find out whether fungi from within the Fukushima exclusion zone were more resistant. Preliminary results show that all fungi collected from both inside and outside the hazard zone are resistant to radiation but differ in their capacity to gather other essential elements. This would indicate that the host selects which type of fungus it interacts with and chooses the one with the most appropriate nutrient profile.

“Under our initial plan, we were also due to take samples of ectomycorrhizal fungi from the zone around Chernobyl [Ukraine], where a nuclear disaster happened in 1989, but recent events unfortunately made that impossible,” says Ruytinx. In the next stage, in the US, fungal samples from Fukushima will undergo genetic analysis and researchers will study gene expression during symbiosis to better understand the underlying biological resistance mechanisms.


Joske Ruytinx

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