Mycorrhizal fungi, nature’s ‘broad web of wood’, get $3 million conservation boost

  • Mycorrhizal fungi connect plant roots to the surrounding soil and facilitate the exchange of water and nutrients for sugars from the sun, playing a vital role in the health of terrestrial ecosystems.
  • The Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN), a science-based initiative focused on mapping and conserving mycorrhizal networks, announced that it has received a general operating grant of $3 million from the Schmidt Family Foundation.
  • SPUN says it will use this funding to map mycorrhizal biodiversity around the planet in biodiversity hotspots and in places that can survive extreme weather events and have the potential to store large amounts of carbon.
  • Among the first planned expeditions is a month-long visit to Palmyra Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, the most remote island in the world, where the team will study the connection between birds, trees, underground mushrooms and underwater coral reefs.

Beneath our feet, a vast network of mushrooms unfolds like a web. Mycorrhizal fungi connect plant roots to the surrounding soil, facilitating the exchange of water and nutrients for sugars from the sun and playing a vital role in the health of terrestrial ecosystems. Today, this “Wood Wide Web” enjoys a conservation momentum.

The Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (TURNED), a science-based initiative focused on mapping and conserving mycorrhizal networks, announced it has received a $3 million general operating grant from the Schmidt Family Foundation.

“Without fungi, there would be no life on Earth. But climate change puts fungal systems – and with them all of our ecosystems, not to mention the foundations of all agriculture – at increasing risk,” said Wendy Schmidt, co-founder and president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, in a statement: “The dedicated scientists at SPUN recognize that to protect fungal networks, we must highlight them and understand the crucial role they play in purifying of our air, the creation of our food and the making of life itself.”

SPUN says it will use this three-year grant to map mycorrhizal biodiversity around the planet through expeditions to biodiversity hotspots and places that can survive extreme weather events, as well as places that can store large amounts of carbon. He will also use machine learning to study underground fungal networks.

“We need to work with communities to document below-ground biodiversity hotspots before they disappear,” said Toby Kiers, professor of evolutionary biology at VU Amsterdam and executive director of SPUN, in a statement.

“We can no longer ignore what is underground: mycorrhizal networks have shaped life on Earth for more than 475 million years. They help sequester carbon, move nutrients and protect biodiversity in ecosystems,” said Kiers, who was named one of the Time magazines 2022 TIME100 Next for his research on mycorrhizal networks.

Among the first planned expeditions is a month-long visit to Palmyra Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, the most remote island in the world. In November, the team will study the connection between birds, trees, subterranean fungi and the atoll’s underwater coral reefs.

SPUN has previously mapped mycorrhizal fungal communities in Colombia, Ecuador and the Apennine Mountains of Italy, which have experienced devastating droughts in recent years attributed to climate change.

“[W]We need to act quickly,” Kiers said. “The destruction of underground ecosystems is accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss and disrupting global nutrient life cycles. Mycorrhizal networks should be considered a global public good to be protected and restored.

Banner image by Jon Sullivan via Flickr.

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