illustration Francis Martin, the symbiosis between fungi and trees
© INRAE C. Slagmulder

Agroecology 6 min

Francis Martin, the symbiosis between fungi and trees

Since 1981, Francis Martin has been investigating symbiotic mechanisms between fungi and trees. A pioneer in his field and dedicated team leader, he guides his research unit and networks in cutting-edge genomics and metagenomics projects that are globally recognised benchmarks today. Thanks to findings of both local and international significance, and his creativity and drive, Martin is seen as a science forerunner of the highest calibre. He has advanced and shaped our understanding of innovative and promising fields of study.

Published on 29 November 2012 (date.last_update 05 December 2019)


Understanding how mighty trees work and making the invisible visible

“Thirty happy years studying forests and the symbiosis between fungi and trees”. With 200 publications in leading international journals and over 100 conference appearances worldwide, for research director at INRA Nancy, Francis Martin, it’s all in the roots. “Understanding how mighty trees work and making the invisible – their associated soil microbes – visible is fascinating. The research is complicated by the extraordinary timeframes we deal with. Knowledge of the future is essential for the forestry industry; forests planted today will be worked in 100 years!”

Roots and genes

1980. Pedologists working in forests are at a loss as to why nutrient concentration in soil does not alone explain tree growth. Fungi, living in symbiosis with roots, seem to play a profound role in a tree’s absorption of nitrogen and phosphorus. INRA Nancy’s newly created Forest Microbiology Laboratory decided to hire Francis Martin, Ph.D. doctor in plant physiology, to study nitrogen metabolism in symbiotic fungi in vivo using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). During a post-doctoral fellowship in the United States, Martin gained new skills in molecular biology and put them to use to identify the first genes involved in symbiosis. Martin is a fan of technology. “After metabolic biochemistry and NMR, I focused on molecular biology for 15 years, then in the 2000s on genomics. Moving between all these different technologies has been beneficial to my work and was made possible through my interaction with researchers from other fields, often from other countries.”

Symbiosis in the forest

In 1987 Martin became INRA’s youngest research director and in 2010 he became its youngest senior research fellow (directeur de recherche de classe exceptionnelle), mastering the art of coordinating the work of dozens of scientists worldwide and distilling it into a 1,800-word article for Science magazine. In 2001, became the head of the Tree-Microbe Interactions Joint Research Unit and led his colleagues to the field’s cutting edge. His team recently discovered a small signal protein produced by the symbiotic fungus controlling host plant immunity that allows for the extensive colonisation of the root by the microsymbiont. By bringing together genomic and metagenomic tools to meet ecological challenges, Martin’s team has become the leader in its field and has attracted and trained many researchers from around the world. He moderates national and international consortia and coordinates a European Union project while remaining actively involved in local community life.

Today, at age 58, he’s heading up a new Laboratory of Excellence called ARBRE (Advanced Research on the Biology and Ecology of Forests) that enjoys 7.5 million euros of funding over eight years and works together with the forestry industry, France’s National Forestry Office and a dozen of other partners. He helms a team of 300 trying to predict the forests of the future in the context of environmental change. “If, as climate models predict, the temperature increases by a few degrees, soil microbial communities will be radically disrupted and primary forestry species like oak and beech will have to adapt or move hundreds of kilometres north in order to survive! What should we be planting now? We must study tree mechanisms for adapting to environmental change, but also study the very important cortege of microbial associates that has existed with trees for more than 400 million years.

Francis Martin and his team
Francis Martin and his team.










Cécile Poulain translated by Daniel McKinnon

Francis Martin Tree-Microbe Interactions Joint Research Unit