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Harnessing the power of fungi.

People in Profile: Mike Amaranthus PhD

There's no shortage of interesting facts about soil fungi,


and Mike Amaranthus (Ph.D. '89) knows them all. "In
temperate forests several miles of fungal filaments can be
present in a thimbleful of soil, he says. " There can be
10,000 species of soil microorganisms in a square meter of soil.
If you consider the below-ground part of the ecosystem,
temperate forests are more diverse than tropical forests.

The sheer biomass of these soil fungi-neither plant nor animal,


but owning their own kingdom-can be staggering, he says. A
hectare of ground in an old-growth Douglas-fir stand can contain
4,200 kilograms of fungal mycelium. That's 9,240 pounds, dry
weight, of tiny threads in a blanket of soil.

"And besides, " he says, " the spores are beautiful." Indeed they
are. Peering through a microscope in Amaranthus' office
laboratory, a visitor sees a mass of crimson, egg-shaped spores
of the fungus Glomus intraradices nestling inside the root of a
marigold plant like bright marbles inside a nylon stocking. Fungal
spores can be shaped like ping-pong balls, or starbursts, or
thistle heads; they can be smooth or bumpy or wrinkled or pitted;
they can be white, yellow, olive, red or green or gray or every
color in between.

In another corner of his lab, Amaranthus picks up two longleaf pine


seedlings. One was fed with nitrogen fertilizer; the other got a shot of the
right mix of fungi instead. The inoculated seedling is visibly more vigorous
on top, and its roots are three times as bushy as those of the other. "We've
inoculated 50 million of these in the South this year, where they're trying to
restore the longleaf pine ecosystem," says Amaranthus. "Inoculation costs
less than a penny per seedling."

The real beauty of these mycorrhizal fungi, as they are called, is more than
skin-deep. When they connect with the roots of plants, they can increase
the plant's ability to take in water and food by 10 to 1,000 times. They help
plants strengthen their immune system. They emit chemicals into the soil
to unlock hard-to-extract micronutrients like iron and phosphorus. They
produce organic "glues" that make the soil more clumpy and porous,
improving its structure and resiliency.

"Mycorrhizae"is the word for the tangle


of tissue that forms when certain treads specialized soil fungi get
together with plant roots. It"s a 400-million-year-old, evolving
relationship, one that scientists think made it possible for aquatic
plants to keep themselves watered and thus become established on
dry land. Mycorrhizae are everywhere in relatively undisturbed soils
more than 90 percent of the world's plants form them around or inside
the root cells. The more numerous ectomycorrhizal species ("Ecto-" is
a prefix meaning "outside") attach themselves to the outsides of root
cells of conifers. The other major category, endomycorrhizae, colonize root tissue from inside the cell..
These species associate themselves with nonconiferous plants, such as shrubs, herbs, and grasses,
including most the commercially important ornamental and agricultural plants.

"Most undisturbed, natural settings don"t lack for mycorrhizae," says Amaranthus."But disturbed soils, like
construction sites or heavily compacted logging sites, or sites where trees are growing in lawns treated
with chemicals; these are the places where the mycorrhizae are depleted, and the plants suffer."

Amaranthus, is the president and chief scientist of Mycorrhizal Applications Inc., a Grants Pass company
that grows, extracts and markets beneficial soil fungi to nurseries, timber companies, landscapers, and
organic farmers. These fungi- " on of the little things that run the world," as Amaranthus calls them-offer an
alternative to the heavy fertilizer and pesticide use common in intensive plant-
rearing methods.

Nursery seedlings, grown in sterilized soil and fed with fertilizer, look good on top
but often suffer when their weak root systems can't handle the stresses of life in
the field. Fertilizers and pesticides can be hard on soils, water, and air, and they're
expensive besides. The fumigant methyl bromide is not only extremely hazardous,
but also impacts the earth's ozone layer and it costs $1,500 to $2,000 an acre.

But until recently, says Amaranthus, growers have had few alternatives large
inputs of fertilizers and pesticides. "We're finding that if you give them an
economical way to grow plants and conserve
resources, most will choose it."
To prepare the product, crews collect the
fruiting bodies of the fungi in what Amaranthus calls "sporchards"
areas where inoculated seedlings have been outplanted, introducing
the fungi to the site. For some species of mycorrhizal fungi,
Amaranthus grows them in pot cultures and harvests the spores. The
company then custom-blends the fungi according to what kinds of
plants the customer is growing. Forest nurseries, growing Douglas-fir
get one blend and nurseries growing pine trees get another;
landscaping nurseries get yet another. Mycorrhizal products are available as liquid soil drenches, powders,
gels and tablets depending upon the needs of the end user. The company also provides scientific support
and evaluation for mycorrhizal outplantings.

Amaranthus' work has caught the eye of the conservation organization


Sustainable Northwest, which this year recognized him with its Founders
of the New Northwest award. Perhaps a more telling honor is that two
fungal genera (Mycoamaranthus and Amogaster) and one species
(Gastrosuillus amaranthii) have been named after him. He also received
the Department of Agriculture's Highest Honor for Scientific Achievement

Amaranthus can't quite explain his passion for the subterranean universe of living things. He grew up in
the Los Angeles area, grandson of an Italian immigrant who took young Mike on his mushroom-collecting
expeditions. " I always enjoyed playing with dirt," he says, smiling, "but I didn't know I'd never out grow it".

He was a pre-law freshman at Berkeley in 1973 when soil science changed his life. "I needed a science
class, and I heard this one was easy. When I walked out of class the first day, I somehow knew what I
wanted to do with my life." It was an inexplicable epiphany: "Soil science brought together biology, geology,
chemistry, ecology, climatology. Integrating so many different perspectives really appealed to me."

After graduating in soil resource management in 1977 (he was class valedictorian), he joined the Forest
Service as a soil scientist on the Siskiyou National Forest. He started to notice that the beautiful, bushy
Douglas-fir and other conifer seedlings that came from the nurseries often didn't do well when planted out
on harvest sites.

He happened to hear a lecture from OSU mycologist Jim Trappe on soil microorganisms, and it was
another "Aha!" moment. "What I was seeing in the field," he says, "couldn't be explained by soil physical
properties or plant nutrients alone." In his agronomically focused soils program at Berkeley, "we got only a
tidbit of information on soil microorganisms.

All our textbook photos of roots were non-mycorrhizal, something you never find in nature.
Jim's information on soil biology was fresh and new." Amaranthus returned to school completed his
master's degree and then a doctorate at Oregon State University.

After 20 years as a government scientist, Amaranthus decided to break away and start his own business.
He'd found a niche: "There were a lot of researchers on fungi out there," he says, "but not many were
doing applied work in a scientific way."

The science of mycorrhizae is not new, he says. "There are some 40,000 papers out there. But what's
lacking has been the practical focus. How to use this knowledge to help real people with real problems.
Bridging that gap is what we're about."

Amaranthus, ever a scientist, emphasizes research and monitoring. Clients (nine out of ten are repeat
customers) are encouraged to conduct comparative studies and report results back to the company. On
selected study sites, Amaranthus keeps track of how well seedlings are doing and how effectively the fungi
colonize the site.
Amaranthus keeps up his scholarly work, regularly publishing his research and giving lectures and
presentations. He holds a courtesy appointment as associate professor in the Oregon State University
Department of Forest Science.

Mycorrhizal Applications has seven full-time employees and seasonal crews. In 1999 the company sold
enough mycorrhizal products to inoculate 400 million plants. Amaranthus is on track to double that figure in
2000, but he's being careful not to move too fast. "I don't want to lose the hands-on aspect," he says. "I
want to keep on being the science guy and work directly with people." "We are in an exciting time of
discovery and the world needs practical and natural solutions to environmental problems."