Doctor Sarah Beck


Sarah PriceGraduated PhD 2016

Thesis Title

The spatial dynamics of below-ground fungal communities: a study of pattern and process

Research Project

A central aim in ecology is to understand patterns of biodiversity across time and space and how these patterns are generated and maintained. To date, the majority of such studies have focussed on above-ground organisms, and despite the importance of microorganisms in ecosystem processes, below-ground populations and communities have been largely disregarded. Popular belief was that microorganisms displayed little spatial structure, however with the recent development of molecular methods, evidence is now emerging that microorganisms are spatially heterogeneous in response to environmental variables, and do in fact show discrete spatial patterns.

Fungi are an important part of terrestrial ecosystems, with invaluable roles in decomposition, nutrient cycling and carbon storage. Moreover, the structure of fungal communities has been shown to have important above ground effects on the growth of individual plants and plant community structure. Therefore it is essential to not only understand the spatial structure of fungal communities but also the underlying functional processes that give rise to such patterns.

The current study aims to firstly characterise the structure of these fungal communities at a range of spatial scales. Using high throughput molecular techniques, such as pyrosequencing, taxonomic community profiles can be compared between geographically separated sites, to determine the roles of both spatial distance and environmental variables in shaping the community structure and at what scale these effects are most prominent. Secondly, using methods such as quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), the spatial patterns of various functional genes and the relative expression of these genes across similar spatial scales can be analysed.

The combination of such taxonomic and functional approaches will provide steps towards understanding both the spatial patterns of fungal communities and how these patterns link to ecological processes, of which fungi play an important part. Consequently, this study will contribute to the knowledge required to effectively manage and conserve terrestrial environments in the light of anthropogenic and environmental change.

Research Images

Brisbane Water National Park
Bundjalung National Park
Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park
Tomaree National Park

Research Project Supervisors

Professor Ian Anderson, Dr Jeff Powell, Dr Barbara Drigo


Awarded 2nd prize ($150 book voucher) in the Postgraduate Research Futures Forum for the presentation 'The spatial ecology of below-ground fungal communities: a study of pattern and process'


Beck S, Anderson IC, Drigo B, Powell JR, (2019) 'A soil fungal metacommunity perspective reveals stronger and more localised interactions above the tree line of an alpine/subalpine ecotone', Soil Biology and Biochemistry, vol.135, pp 1-9

Beck S, Powell JR, Drigo B, Cairney JWG, Anderson IC, (2015) 'The role of stochasticity differs in the assembly of soil- and root-associated fungal communities', Soil Biology and Biochemistry, vol.80, pp 18-25