Researchers in the Garden’s Dixon Prairie seek to determine how prairies can be restored successfully on engineered soils, how restoration changes soil properties, and which management activities can help transform engineered soils into soils that support a healthy prairie ecosystem. For example, a restored prairie has a great potential to store carbon. Carbon storage in soils can mitigate global warming and climate change by reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and offsetting the human emission of carbon dioxide.
Researchers in McDonald Woods assess the effect of invasive species on ecosystem processes, and the results of restoration activities. In particular, they have examined how invasion and restoration affect mycorrhizal fungi, soil carbon and nitrogen. Because mycorrhizal fungi store carbon and nitrogen as well as supply plants with nutrients, any change in mycorrhizal quantities could influence both soil carbon storage and forest health.
Other research projects investigate the survival of the soil community after wildfires and prescribed burns; study the responses to elevated carbon dioxide and nitrogen pollution; and examine how mycorrhizal fungi might influence the invasion of non-native plants.
Recent Chicago Botanic Garden research has found that fungi are sensitive indicators of nitrogen pollution (from autos, industry, etc.) within the Chicago area. The number of fungal species decreases as nitrogen pollution increases. Charred trees need to remain after a fire because the roots contain the mycorrhizae used by new seedlings to become established. Fungi that grow from one tree root to another allow plants to "share" water during drought. Between 7 and 10% of a plant’s water requirement during drought can arrive from adjacent trees via their fungal linkage. Selecting certain species of mycorrhizae for restoration can significantly accelerate the growth of trees. The relative abundance of soil fungi and bacteria can be used as markers of restoration success.