Vast networks of underground fungi – the “circulatory system of the planet” – are to be mapped for the first time, to protect them from damage and improve their ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide.
Fungi use carbon to form networks in the soil, which connect to plant roots and act as nutrient “highways”, exchanging carbon from plant roots for nutrients. For example, some fungi are known to supply up to 80% phosphorus to their host plants.
Underground fungal networks can extend for many miles, but are rarely seen, although trillions of miles of them are believed to exist around the world. These fungi are important for soil biodiversity and soil fertility, but little is known about them.
Many hotspots of mycorrhizal fungi are threatened by expansion of agriculture, urbanization, pollution, water scarcity and climate change.
The new project from the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN) will involve the collection of 10,000 samples worldwide from hotspots identified through artificial intelligence technology.
Conservationist Jane Goodall, who is advising the project, said: “An understanding of the underground fungal networks on which life depends is essential to our efforts to protect the soil before it is too late.”
The Society for the Preservation of Underground Networks includes scientists from the University of Manchester in the Netherlands, Canada, the US, France, Germany and the UK.
The first collection will take place in Patagonia next year, and will continue for about 18 months, to produce maps of potential underground mycorrhizal fungi that can be used for further research. Using the maps, the scientists hope to pinpoint the ecosystems facing the most urgent threats, and work with local conservation organizations to create “conservation corridors” for underground ecosystems.
This is believed to be the first major effort to map an underground ecosystem in this way. Climatology has focused on above-ground ecosystems, and although we know that fungi are essential to soil structure and fertility, and the global carbon cycle – because ecosystems with thriving mycorrhizal fungal networks can be found without ecosystems. Has been shown to store eight times more carbon. Much of the role of fungi in the nutrient cycle of such networks – the soil – remains mysterious.
mark checked, former CEO of the Nature Conservancy and member of SPUN’s governing body, said: “Fungal networks are the basis of life on Earth. If trees are the ‘lungs’ of the planet, then fungal networks are the ‘communication system’. These networks are largely unexplored Huh.”
Mycorrhizal fungi make tough organic compounds that provide structure to soil, and store carbon in their necromas, networks that are no longer active, but remain woven into the soil.
Scientists warn that modern industrial agriculture involves large amounts of chemical fertilizers that disrupt the exchange dynamics between plants and fungi. Without a flourishing fungal network, crops require more chemical inputs and are more vulnerable to drought, soil erosion, pests and pathogens. Mechanical tillage in modern agriculture also damages the physical integrity of the fungal network.
According to soil scientists, there is also increasing evidence that some combinations of fungi can increase productivity more than others, so protecting them is important.
Ten hotspots have been identified by the scientists involved, including: the Canadian tundra; Mexican Plateau; high altitude in South America; Morocco; Western Sahara; Israel’s Negev Desert; Steps of Kazakhstan; the grasslands and high plains of Tibet; and Russian taiga.
Jeremy Grantham, a billionaire financier and climate research funder who is funding the project with $3.5m (£2.6m), said: “We have an invaluable ally in mitigating climate change right below our feet: the giant Hidden fungal networks. Billions of tons of carbon dioxide flow from plants into fungal networks annually. Yet these carbon sinks are poorly understood. To map and exploit this dangerous but vital resource for life on Earth, SPUN is leading a new chapter in global conservation.”