Leslie Forero: Mushroom Expert

Leslie Forero Utah State University

Leslie Forero is wild about mushrooms. And that makes sense, considering her study of things beneath our feet.

Forero is a Presidential Doctoral Research Fellow in the S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, studying plant and soil feedbacks. From her research site in Cedar Creek, Minnesota, she’s researching the reasoning behind polycultures excelling over monocultures.

“If you intercrop, you will get a lot more plant mass at the end than if you plant only one crop,” she said. “You would think one would outcompete the others, but if you have more than one species in an area, all of them will do better.”

Forero examines fungi and bacteria in soil samples that encourage plant growth.

She describes this as “plant-mushroom internet;” messages are sent back and forth between organisms dictating what nutrients are needed. Most plants have fungal interactions like this; Forero estimates at least 90 percent of all plants on Earth have associations that allow them to gain phosphorus from the soil, giving fungi carbon in exchange.

Using a model of how one plant species grows on another plant’s soil type, Forero can calculate the community feedbacks and how much biomass a plant will produce. She’s finding that plants grow best when species’ soils are able to intermix, in contrast to niche partitioning models. Their coexistence is fascinating, Forero said, as the plants regulate their relationship with the soil, almost how people balance clashing personalities.

Forero is a long-time animal lover. The California native raised chickens and pigs through the local 4-H program and went on to study animal health and behavior at University of California Berkeley. When asked why she made the switch from animals to soil science, she said because “it’s a little bit of everything.”

“It was really interesting to use what I had learned with animals and apply that to soils,” she said. “Kind of like animals and plants, it changes with the climate. You aren’t going to find a highly weathered tropical soil here in Cache Valley—it’s not its place.”

When she’s not collecting samples in the field, she enjoys looking for mushrooms. In fact, she’s a member of the Utah Mushroom Society and is hoping to find a place in the Bridgerland Microbiology Society. While she can’t pin down a favorite shroom, she’ll always eat chanterelles, porcini and morels, which she prefers when found in the wild.

“I’m a crazy mushroom person, for sure,” she said. “But the kind you buy in the store aren’t my favorite.”

Fungal aspirations aside, Forero isn’t sure where she’s headed after graduate school. Although she enjoys research, she doesn’t plan to remain in academia.

“It’s so busy all the time and I want time for mushrooms.”