Mycorrhizae: Hidden Heroes

Beneath the surface of our planet lies an extraordinary network that has quietly shaped ecosystems for millions of years. The mycorrhizal network, a complex system created by the hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi joining with plant roots, has recently revealed a remarkable ability to store a significant portion of carbon emissions. In this article, we will delve into the world of mycorrhizal networks and discoveries that have contributed to our understanding of these hidden heroes.

Unearthing the Mycorrhizal Network

Mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic relationship with plants, extending their intricate hyphal networks into the soil to facilitate nutrient exchange. This mutually beneficial partnership enables the fungi to extract nutrients while providing plants with water and other essential elements. Through this underground web, mycorrhizal fungi establish connections not only within forests and grasslands but also under roads, gardens, and even houses on every continent.

Dr. Suzanne Simard is the renowned ecologist known for her groundbreaking discovery of the mycorrhizal network and its ability to facilitate communication and nutrient exchange among trees and other plant species. Although Simard's work has global significance, she has a strong connection to the state of Oregon, where she conducted extensive research on the interconnections within forest ecosystems. Simard's work has had such a profound impact that it inspired filmmaker James Cameron during the production of his film "Avatar." Her connection to the film further popularized her research and its implications for understanding the intricate relationships in the natural world.

The Carbon Storage Revelation

Recent research, including a comprehensive meta-analysis involving scientists from the University of Sheffield and other institutions, has unveiled the mycorrhizal network's astounding potential for carbon storage. These fungi are responsible for sequestering 36 percent of global fossil fuel emissions annually, amounting to over 13 gigatons of carbon. This carbon capture capacity exceeds the annual emissions of China, underscoring the critical role mycorrhizal fungi play in mitigating climate change.

Scientists are now focusing on further understanding the permanence of carbon stored within mycorrhizal structures and exploring ways to optimize carbon retention in the soil. Additionally, ongoing research seeks to deepen our understanding of the crucial role played by fungi, along with other microbes, in the subterranean movement of carbon, and how this intricate process may be affected by future climate change.

Beyond Carbon Storage: The Importance of Mycorrhizal Networks

Mycorrhizal networks extend their influence beyond carbon storage, playing a vital role in maintaining global biodiversity. However, these networks face threats from soil degradation caused by human activities such as agriculture and development. Recognizing the importance of mycorrhizal networks in conservation and biodiversity policies is crucial to address the potential consequences of soil degradation, including climate change impacts and reduced crop productivity.

Ways You Can Protect Fungal Networks 

There are practical steps individuals can take to protect fungal and mycorrhizal networks. 

One effective method is to add fungi to your garden; particularly saprotrophic and mycorrhizal fungi. Saprotrophic fungi obtain nutrients by decomposing dead organic matter, such as fallen leaves, logs, or other plant debris. They break down complex organic compounds into simpler forms that they can absorb and utilize. On the other hand, mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic associations with plant roots and primarily obtain nutrients, particularly phosphorus, from the soil through their relationship with host plants. These different fungi often contribute synergistically to nutrient cycling and ecosystem functioning. By incorporating fungi into your garden, you not only support the growth of your plants but also contribute to the preservation of fungal networks. 

Additionally, individuals can get involved with the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN), a pioneering organization dedicated to advancing the conservation and understanding of mycorrhizal networks, and a contributor to the research on mycorrhizal carbon storage. SPUN aims to raise awareness about the critical role of fungi in ecosystem functioning and advocate for their inclusion in conservation and climate change mitigation strategies. 

Since 2018, Bridgetown Mushrooms has put over 705,000 pounds of inoculated substrate back into the soil. While the mushrooms we primarily grow (oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms) are saprotrophic, they still play an important role in nutrient cycling and decomposition processes in ecosystems. If you’d like to use our inoculated mushroom blocks for your garden, give us a call or text. If you’d like to grow your own mushrooms and use the leftover block in your garden, check out our grow kits

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