It is estimated that there are trillions of underground networks over the entire world, although you will not see them very often. The fungi are essential for soil biodiversity and fertility. Many mycorrhizal fungi may be under threat due to the expansion of agricultural areas, urbanisation, pollution, water scarcity and climate change.
Ten thousand samples
SPUN’s research project involves an international team of scientists who will take ten thousand samples at different places all over the world. Using artificial intelligence, ten hotspots have been identified on the Canadian tundras, the Mexican Plateau, the South American Altiplano, in Morocco, the western Sahara, the Negev Desert, the Kazakhstan Steppe, the Tibetan Plateau and grasslands and the Russian taiga. But underground networks will be getting plenty of attention closer to home too. Among her many activities, Kiers is collaborating with Vincent Merckx, researcher at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, who is currently mapping fungal networks in the parks and streets of Amsterdam. Merckx has discovered that trees in ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo are also connected via a highly complex underground fungal network.
Role of fungi still unknown
This project is the first big initiative to map an underground ecosystem. Toby Kiers, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at VU Amsterdam, explains: “So far, climate science has concentrated on above-ground ecosystems. Despite the fact that we know that fungi are essential for the global carbon cycle and soil structure and fertility, the role of fungi in the soil nutrient cycle is still very much a mystery to us.”
What Kiers and other researchers have already discovered is that fungal networks are connected to plant roots and act as highways for the transport of nutrients, enabling plant roots to exchange carbohydrates for phosphorus from fungi. The plants and fungi trade with one another on an underground market, so to speak, opting for the best deal available. Mycorrhizal fungi make tough organic connections, which give the soil structure, and store carbon in their necromass – networks which are no longer active but remain interwoven in the soil.
It is crucial that we protect these networks
Scientists warn that modern industrial agriculture adds enormous quantities of chemical fertilisers to the soil and that these materials disrupt the dynamics of the exchange between plants and fungi. Kiers: “Without flourishing fungal networks, crops need more auxiliary materials (chemicals) and are more susceptible to drought, soil erosion, plagues and pathogens. The mechanical ploughing carried out in today’s agriculture also affects fungal networks.”
Corridors for conservation
According to soil researchers, there are increasing indications that some combinations of fungi can raise productivity more than others, so it is crucial that we protect them. The first samples will be taken in Patagonia next year and maps of underground mycorrhizal fungi will be drawn up and used for further research. The scientists involved hope to use these maps to identify which fungi are most under threat and to cooperate with local nature conservation organisations to try to realise ‘corridors’ for the conservation of the underground ecosystems.
The project is being led by prominent advisers such as Jane Goodall, Michael Pollan and Merlin Sheldrake, along with SPUN board members and founders Rose Marcario and Mark Tercek. Jane Goodall says the following about the project: “An understanding of underground fungal networks is essential in our efforts to protect the soil, on which life depends, before it is too late.”
Philanthropic gift of 3.5 million dollar
The research can be conducted thanks to a 3.5 million dollar gift from English philanthropist Jeremy Grantham, through the Grantham Foundation. Professor Kiers' work is crucial in the fight against climate change, a topic to which the foundation is strongly committed. For VU Amsterdam, this fits in very well with the ambition to use philanthropy to contribute to solving social issues. To this end, a special fund has been established in collaboration with the VU Association: the VU Fund.