Fungal networks span across our Earth allowing plant-plant communication
“Fungal networks underpin life on Earth. If trees are the ‘lungs’ of the planet, fungal networks are the ‘circulatory systems,’” said Mark Tercek, former CEO of the Nature Conservancy (2). A mycorrhizal fungal network is an underground system created by the hyphae, a branch-like filament that makes up the root structure of fungi, of mycorrhizal fungi and the joining of plant roots (1). Mycorrhizal networks play a key role in plant communities by facilitating and influencing seedling establishment and supplying and recycling nutrients. Understanding fungal networks will help scientists conserve fungi ecosystems, which are vital to preserving the Earth’s biodiversity by combating the effects of climate change (3).
Roughly 25% of all plant species inhabit an underground ecosystem (3). The majority of these organisms belong to mycorrhizal networks, which connect roots from surrounding vegetation and trees. This system allows plants to communicate by dispersing compounds like carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen, and water between each other (1). In turn, these plants feed on microscopic organisms’ recycled nutrients through their roots during photosynthesis. During this process, carbon is pulled from the atmosphere and stored in the surrounding soil (3).
The total length of mycorrhizal networks in the top ten centimeters of soil is more than 280 quadrillion miles (2). Five billion tons of carbon dioxide is sequestered within the soil throughout photosynthesis, making these massive fungal networks one of the biggest carbon sinks, a natural environment that absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, on the planet (3).
In addition, the biodiversity that fungal networks support within ecosystems mitigates the effects of climate change through their seedling establishment (4). Mycorrhizal networks facilitate relationships between plants and their environments and thus shift the dominance of certain species. Specifically, mycorrhizal networks facilitate the growth of smaller plants, which enables them to grow in between, or near, larger plants (2). This process allows increases in carbon inputs from mycorrhizal networks, access to nutrients and water, and increased exchange rates of nutrients and water from other plants (1).
Understanding and preserving fungal systems is vital to life on Earth. The Society for Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN) is planning a project to classify fungal biodiversity hotspots at risk. The project will use machine learning to identify 10,000 samples from the Patagonia Highlands, the Negev Desert, the Sahara, the Canadian Tundra, the Mexican Plateau, Tibet’s Grasslands, Kazakhstan’s Steppes, and Russia’s Taiga (3).
This project will allow scientists to further understand the fungal networks that exist globally and gain insight into what methods are most important to preserve them. Fungal networks are most at risk due to fertilizers, pesticides, deforestation, and urbanization (2). It is imperative that scientists continue to research and expand their studies on fungal networks in order to sustain this incredible natural system. Collaborating with mycorrhizal fungal networks will be essential in humanity’s efforts to save the Earth’s ecosystems.
Map of Amazon’s fungal networks
- (2022, October 4). Mycorrhizal Network. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 8, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mycorrhizal_network
- Harvey, F. (2021, November 30). World’s vast networks of underground fungi to be mapped for the first time. The Guardian. Retrieved October 9, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/nov/30/worlds-vast-networks-of-underground-fungi-to-be-mapped-for-first-time
- Hurton, T. R. (2009, October 13). Socialism in soil? the importance of mycorrhizal fungal … – besjournals. British Ecological Society. Retrieved October 9, 2022, from https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2745.2009.01570.x
- Sherman, L. J. (n.d.). Mapping the fungi network that lives beneath the soil. One Earth. Retrieved October 9, 2022, from https://www.oneearth.org/mapping-the-fungi-network-that-lives-beneath-the-soil/