With rising carbon emissions warming the planet, one of the major solutions to climate change is growing beneath our feet.
A study published Monday in the journal Current Biology finds that fungi gobble up more than a third of the world’s annual fossil fuel emissions.
As such, fungi “represent a blind spot in carbon modeling, conservation and recovery,” said co-author Katie Field, Professor of Biology at the University of Sheffield, he said in a statement.
“The numbers we found are staggering,” Field added.
Field’s team found that fungi reduced 36 percent of global fossil fuel emissions — enough to negate annual carbon pollution from China, the world’s largest carbon emitter. China outstrips its closest polluter competitor, the United States, by a factor of two.
Fungi are a vast biological kingdom that produces mushrooms – the fruiting bodies of much larger organisms that proliferate below the surface.
While superficially resembling plants because they move so slowly, fungi are more like animals, with which they share a need to find food and use chemicals to break it down—rather than synthesizing nutrients from sunlight and carbon dioxide.
Some fungi weave around the root tips of plants, forming a symbiotic relationship that serves as an ancient basis for life on Earth.
Roughly half a billion years ago, these “root fungi”—named after the co-Latin words for “fungi” and “root”—provided plants with mineral nutrients like phosphorus in exchange for sugars manufactured in the plant.
Since these plants make this sugar from carbon dioxide from the air, it means that fungi are actually the “carbon bank” growing underground.
Some are quite large: a type of giant fungus famous in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula It spans an area of 37 hectares, or 91 acres.
The study found that the world’s plants pump an estimated 13 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into subterranean fungi each year.
But as important as they are, these subterranean fungal networks are constantly being opened by the many ways in which human society interacts with the subsurface world – through agriculture, mining, and industry.
This intervention takes a heavy toll. The United Nations warned last year that 90 percent of the Earth’s topsoil — the thin, fertile skin from which the world’s crops and forests grow — It could be in danger by 2050.
While the nutritional effects of such a decline are clear, the climate effects are also severe, the team found.
The large amount of carbon found in mushrooms is often “overlooked” in favor of more visible conservation efforts such as protecting forests, said lead author Heidi Hawkins of the University of Cape Town.
Hawkins cautioned that there is a lot about the details that remains unclear.
Like forests—which release carbon dioxide when trees die and store it as they grow—the picture of mushrooms as a one-way carbon vault is overly simplistic. Hawkins noted that we still don’t know how stable the carbon stored in mushrooms is.
“We know that this is a flux, where some of it is retained in mycorrhizal structures while the fungi are living, and even after they have died,” she said.
Some of these carbon molecules may break down into solid form into minerals in the soil. Some may be attached to new plant bodies.
Others are lost back into the atmosphere—because, like animals, fungi release carbon dioxide as a waste product from respiration.
While the details of these relationships remain little understood, Field said, their broad limits are clear.
“When we disrupt ancient life support systems in soils, we sabotage our efforts to limit global warming and undermine the ecosystems we depend on,” she added.
While it is not news that these networks are essential to biodiversity, “we now have more evidence that they are essential to the health of our planet,” Field added.
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