Book Review

Fungi in Ecosystem Processes

by John Dighton
Mycology, Vol. 17. New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc. 2003.
ISBN 0-8247-4244-3 (hardbound); 432 pp; $175.00.

Some years ago a group of ecologists/ economists attempted to estimate the economic value of "ecosystem services," everything from the commodity value of natural resources like timber to less obvious things like climate regulation, waste treatment, and flower pollinators needed for production of crops. The bottom line is that the value of natural ecosystems is, in the authors' words, "big potatoes"–at least three times the value of all the goods and services produced throughout the world (Costanza et al., Nature, Vol. 387:253-60, May 25, 1997). Not many of us appreciate that. Even fewer realize that fungi are an indispensable part of nearly all these ecosystems, thus making us utterly dependent upon them, even as they are destroyed or degraded.

Book cover

If you've familiarized yourself with the general roles of fungi in nature (a good way to do this would be through reading Fungi, by Brian Spooner and Peter Roberts (see the review following this one) and are ready to learn more about the nuts and bolts of their activities, this book can help you take that next step.

John Dighton directs the Pinelands Field Station, in the New Jersey pine barrens and is a professor at Rutgers University. His background is primarily in ecology, not mycology, and much of his research involves ecosystem aspects of ectomycorrhizas. The book arose from a manuscript he prepared for a graduate course he teaches called Fungi in Ecosystems. Lacking a suitable textbook for the class, he decided to write his own. Given this original target audience, you'll need some familiarity with college-level biology, fungi, and soils to get the most out of it.

After a general introduction in Chapter 1, six main topics are treated in one lengthy chapter each: Fungi and primary productivity: making nutrients available; Fungi and primary productivity: plant growth and carbon fixation; Fungi, secondary productivity, and other fungal-faunal interactions; Fungi and population and community regulation; Fungal interactions with humans; and Synopsis and outlook to the future. Generally the fungi are discussed in four groups – mycorrhizal, saprotrophic, pathogenic, and lichen-formers–and the emphasis is on what they are doing, rather than what they are.

Dighton poses the main threads that flow through the volume as four questions: (1) How have fungi become adapted to survive within the constraints of the environment and other organisms around them? (2) How do fungi function in maintaining the status quo of ecosystems? (3) How do fungi alter the environment of the ecosystem so as to withstand perturbation? and (4) How do fungi influence the population and community structure of other organisms?

A wealth of information gleaned from Dighton's own research and well over 1000 references is presented to address those questions. The text is supported by a large number of tables and black-andwhite graphs, charts, and diagrams, mostly redrawn from published sources. The organization, writing, and overall presentation are adequate– good enough for those with a pre-existing interest in the material, but not of a caliber likely to attract many new converts to matters of ecosystem mycology. Given that, it's difficult for me to recommend this book in light of its high price. At $175.00, it's not likely to be used in many classes and thus will reach few in its original audience of university students, not to mention general readers who might want to know more about the activities of fungi in the world around us. If money's no object, or you have access to a university library, Fungi in Ecosystem Processes is worth checking out. If neither of those conditions applies to you, then you may prefer to wait for a more accessible treatment of this essential but little-appreciated subject.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile 47:4, 2006