Fungi play a significant role in understanding climate change and finding solutions, experts say
By Chloe Bennett
A bartering system between fungi and trees is taking place underground in the Adirondacks, and researchers are working to uncover it. This month, a paper that focuses on the relationship between fungal communities and trees was published as part of a broad series of related research.
Scientists from Skidmore College, Indiana University and Kent State University used soil, leaf and root samples to study mycorrhizal forest fungal communities –which pass along nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus – in varying locations around the region.
The researchers set up sites in Shingle Shanty Preserve near Long Lake, Huntington Wildlife Forest in Newcomb and the Lake George Wild Forest. They found that individual trees are not only influenced by their immediate fungal communities, but by surrounding networks as well. Trees such as oak, birch and pine have ectomycorrhizal fungi and intake more nutrients when surrounded by maple, ash and cherry trees, which have arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, the research suggested. Tree communities could be more important to forest health than individuals because they can receive more nutrients, Skidmore College researcher and professor Kurt Smemo said.
“A distillation of this is that tree communities matter,” Smemo said.
In the last decade, scientists have discovered fungi’s role in understanding climate science and carbon dioxide storage, Smemo said, but there is more work to be done.
Climate change connection
Mycologist and former Skidmore College senior teaching associate Sue Van Hook said fungi play a vital role in alleviating the effects of climate change because of the microorganisms’ contributions to soil and plant health.
Mycorrhizal fungi can store carbon inside a durable molecule that can last for up to 50 years after the fungus’ death, Van Hook, said, and having a wide array of trees and plants means there is more possibility for diverse fungal networks.
“The more biodiversity above ground, the more biodiversity below ground,” she said.
Soil water retention is another way fungi lend a hand to carbon storage, according to Van Hook, who did not work on the February research project. For every gram of carbon that is added to soil, around 8 grams of water is retained, she said.
“The more we cultivate healthy soils and fungal plant relationships, the more carbon we hold onto and then the more water we hold onto in the soil,” she said.
Fungi on the trail
Saranac Lake mushroom expert Susan Hopkins has worked with fungi for 43 years and has offered mushroom tours in the Adirondacks for the past decade. Hopkins said the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and trees is vital to forests like those in the Adirondacks.
“Almost all the trees around us are dependent on their fungi partners for interaction and nutrient uptake and trading nutrients back and forth,” Hopkins said. “And most trees and fungi can’t live without their partners, they don’t survive without their mycorrhizal partners.”
After decades of practicing fungi identification, Hopkins said current research on the microorganisms has a long way to go. “We don’t know even a tenth of what we have,” she said.
Van Hook, who owns a soil health and healing practice in Cambridge, NY, said fungi can not only help us understand how the climate is changing but reverse the effects of it, too.
“The role the fungi play is extraordinarily important,” she said. “And having them in this soil will enable us to cool the planet back down.”