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Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus

Révéler les superpouvoirs secrets des champignons

 — 27 juillet 2022
In the fight against warming, a formidable ally hides just beneath our feet.

Dr. Kiers, 45, an evolutionary biologist based at the Free University of Amsterdam, is on a novel mission. She is probing a vast and poorly understood universe of underground fungi that can be vital, in her view, in the era of climate change.

Some species of fungi can store exceptional levels of carbon underground, keeping it out of the air and preventing it from heating up the Earth’s atmosphere. Others help plants survive brutal droughts or fight off pests. There are those especially good at feeding nutrients to crops, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

In short, they are what she called “levers” to address the hazards of a warming climate.

By one estimate, 5 billion tons of carbon flow from plants to mycorrhizal fungi annually. Without help from the fungi, that carbon would likely stay in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the powerful greenhouse gas that is heating the planet and fueling dangerous weather. “Keeping this fungal network protected is paramount as we face climate change,” Dr. Kiers said.

In addition, the biodiversity of underground fungi is a huge factor in soil health, which is crucial to the world’s ability to feed itself as the planet warms.

Specific knowledge of the power of these networks, said Tim G. Benton, a biologist at Leeds University who isn’t involved in Dr. Kiers’s work, is “very patchy.”

“More information would be very valuable,” he said.

Yet so little is known about fungi that they are not even counted in the Convention on Biodiversity, the global treaty aimed at protecting nature. That treaty is aimed at plants and animals. Fungi are neither. They make up a separate kingdom of life altogether.


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