Poisonous red and white fly-agaric mushroom in Autumn. Photo Credit: Elegant01 via Envato Elements.
Scientists have determined that fungi species are essential to the survival of our planet — and they may even be crucial in combating climate change.
Fungi are a group of eukaryotic organisms that include mushrooms, yeasts, mildews, and other species.
Research shows that fungi are crucial in combating climate change since some species help earth’s forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains, increases in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere are responsible for shifting the global climate. Specifically, NOAA reported that increases in atmospheric CO2 have contributed to about two-thirds of the total energy imbalance causing rising temperatures on Earth.
Fungi Fight Climate Change
For instance, one such species that readily absorbs atmospheric carbon is mycorrhizal fungus. This fungi exists entirely underground. Mycorrhiza derives from the Greek words myco meaning fungus and rhizo meaning root. This refers to the relationship between vascular plant roots and their symbiotic fungi, which consists of fungi growing in close association with the roots of trees. Nearly 90% of all vascular plant species have symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi, according to researchers.
While these fungi are not visible to the human eye, they help ease the effects of climate change. More specifically, researchers at Boston University found mycorrhizal fungi help forests absorb climate-warming CO2 pollution to delay the effects of global warming.
According to the researchers, understanding which forests are most efficient at absorbing CO2 requires knowledge of which mycorrhizal fungi are present in that forest’s microbiome (microorganisms in a particular environment). Further, scientists learned that particular root fungi — ectomycorrhizal fungi — help trees absorb CO2 at an even faster rate.
Mycologist Giuliana Furci is the founder of the non-governmental organization (NGO), the Fungi Foundation which works to protect and promote fungi. She explained in The Guardian that science supports the fact that fungi play a role in maintaining a healthy climate.
“The science is clear: fungi are essential to maintaining a stable climate system (given their role in sequestering carbon in soil) and preserving ecosystemic health,” she said.
Without fungi, plants cannot survive. “Most plants […] rely on fungi to survive,” she added. “There would be no forests for you to hike in or any agriculture to feed you.”
Eliminating Environmental Pollutants
While some fungi can help sequester CO2, others can help detoxify soil.
Specifically, one component of fungi known as mycelium can help clean up environmental contamination and pollutants. Mycelium is the root system that feeds growing fungi and also cleanses toxins in the soil.
Further, Mycelium acts as a recycling agent to clean up environmental contamination through a process called mycoremediation. Mycoremediation allows fungi to convert residues that might be toxic for humans into harmless molecules that are released into nature, according to Biomar Microbial Technologies.
Through mycoremediation, studies show that mycelium can degrade plastic, crude oil, and absorb radioactive contaminants and heavy metals. Further studies find that microbes in laboratory conditions can degrade many different pollutants such as monocyclic (Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (naphthalene, anthracene, and phenanthrene).
Post from @fungifoundation on Instagram.
Both of these hydrocarbons have adverse effects on health and the environment. Monocyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are well-known environmental pollutants that are volatile and water-soluble, according to a study in Life Sciences. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons irritate eyes and breathing passages. People are exposed to these irritants when breathing air contaminated with motor vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, wood smoke, or fumes from asphalt roads, according to the CDC.
Helping Plant Survival
Plants have depended on fungi for millions of years. According to research, 90% of plants have a mutually beneficial relationship with fungi.
Additionally, The mycelium in fungi helps supply plants with nutrients essential to their survival. This root system breaks down organic matter and provides plants with water and nutrient-rich soil. In return, plants fuel the metabolism of the fungi by supplying the products of photosynthesis.
Post from @nyartistscircle on Instagram.
This ability allows the mycelium to break down toxins to protect the soil and plants around it. Further, the mycelium is able to break some of that stored carbon down into carbohydrates, which then act as nutrients for the soil, BBC’s Climate Academy reports.
Some fungi species such as endophytes, also help protect plants from environmental dangers. These fungi live inside plant tissue without damaging the host plant. Endophytes release toxins that repel herbivores or resist environmental stress factors, such as infection by microorganisms, drought, or heavy metals in soil.
Protecting and Benefiting Animals
In addition to plants, research also finds that fungi can help protect insect species. For example, a study by mycologist Paul Stamets discovered a mushroom extract that can protect honey bees from infectious diseases.
Waves of highly infectious viruses, such as deformed wing virus (DWV) and Lake Sinai virus (LSV), contribute to recent declines in honeybee health, the study finds.
Further, climate change has contributed to adverse health effects on honey bee populations. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service, fluctuating temperatures disrupt bee colony age structures and resource utilization, which allows Varroa mites, a type of parasite, to migrate among colonies spreading this parasite and the viruses it transmits.
In the study, extracts from the mycelium of multiple fungal species known to have antiviral properties were fed to honeybees. In field trials, colonies fed Ganoderma resinaceum extract showed significant decreases in DWV and LSV cases.
Stamets explained that “these findings indicate honey bees may gain health benefits from fungi and their antimicrobial compounds.”
Fungi also have mutually beneficial relationships with other arthropod insects like beetles, according to Iowa State University. Arthropods depend on fungi for protection from predators and pathogens. In exchange, fungi obtain nutrients and a method for disseminating spores into new environments.
The association between the fungi species, Basidiomycota, and scale insects is one example of this mutually beneficial relationship. For instance, the fungal mycelium covers and protects the insect colonies. The scale insects then pass nutrients from plants to the fungus.
According to researchers, climate change influences the diversity of arthropod species that fungi species closely associate with, and can decrease populations of decomposers, predators and parasites. The decline then leads to increased herbivory which affects the structure and function of ecosystems.
Conserving Fungi Biodiversity
Fungi are crucial to biodiversity, and biodiversity is important for a healthy, stable climate, according to BBC’s Climate Academy.
In addition, Mycologist Giuliana Furci noted that policies often overlook fungi conservation, which could be detrimental to the environment.
“Across many environmental and conservation policies, fungi have been overlooked or undervalued. This oversight has consequences: when fungi are put at risk – endangering the ecosystems that depend on them – we miss opportunities to advance solutions to serious environmental problems like climate change and land degradation.”
For this reason, the Fungi Foundation is calling for the incorporation of fungi across law and policy at every level. The foundation as a result prepared a manifesto and a roadmap for the legal recognition of fungi.
Post from @fungifoundation on Instagram.
Furci said, “All mushrooms are magic. Take it from me, as someone who studies them. It’s time to say their name by acknowledging them all around – from the dinner table to international conservation policies – and including them in our conception of ecosystems that need to be cherished and protected.”