Mapping the fungi network that lives beneath the soil

Mapping the fungi network that lives beneath the soil

The Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN) has launched a project to map the complex system of mycorrhizal fungi that live in Earth’s soil all around the world. After receiving the largest ever donation for this type of scientific research, the nonprofit aims to better understand the chain of communication between trees and fungal networks and how this can help mitigate climate change.

Roughly 25% of all of the planet’s species live underground. The majority of these are mycorrhizal fungi which act as a social network connecting all the trees and vegetation in a surrounding area or forest. Discovered by Suzanne Simard, the Wood Wide Web, as it is known colloquially, allows the plants above to communicate and disperse nutrients between each other. In turn, the plants feed the microscopic organisms sugars through their roots during photosynthesis. Carbon is pulled from the atmosphere and stored in the soil throughout this process.

Globally, the total length of mycorrhizal fungi in the top 10 centimeters (3.9 in) of soil is more than 450 quadrillion kilometers (280 quadrillion mi). That’s nearly half the width of the Milky Way galaxy! Estimates conclude that at least 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide are sequestered within the soil through this complex system. That’s 75% of all the terrestrial CO2 on Earth, making it one of the largest carbon sinks on our planet.

SPUN’s work is then vital to understanding our shared atmosphere and ecosystem. Supporters and advisors for the project include Jane Goodall, Michael Pollan, Merlin Sheldrake, and the founder of the Fungi Foundation, Giuliana Furci.

The project will use machine learning to identify fungal biodiversity hotspots and take 10,000 samples from these ecosystems over the next year and a half. Beginning in April 2022, the first data set will take place in the Patagonia highlands. The Canadian tundra, the Mexican plateau, the Sahara, the Negev desert, Kazakhstan’s steppes, Tibet’s grasslands, and Russia’s taiga are all potential mycorrhizal hotspots.

Once mapped out, SPUN hopes to identify the underground networks most at risk due to fertilizers, pesticides, deforestation, and urbanization. With this information, plans can be made to preserve and protect these areas. Understanding and conserving fungi ecosystems can help fight climate change and preserve Earth's biodiversity..

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