Long before there was the Internet, and even before cities came into being, there were fungi – the original social network, if you will. But scientists don’t have an accurate picture of how extensive these networks are in North America or anywhere else in the world. The nonprofit Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN) is implementing a massive project for the first time to map the global fungal network.
Fungi aren’t just the singular mushrooms that swarm through the ground. They form vast underground networks that can be the size of a state park. The impressive extension of the networks is matched by their many functions: fungal networks help trees communicate with each other about things like insect infestations, act as nutritious highways, and enrich the soil so other plants can thrive.
One way that helps keep soils healthy is by storing carbon, absorbing at least 5 billion tons of carbon each year. Fungal webs are an underappreciated carbon sink. Root fungi, called ectomorph fungi, help trees absorb carbon more quickly.
However, complicating matters are factors such as pollution, urbanization, and agricultural expansion, which are altering and destroying the outer root forests. SPUN says its comprehensive map will provide complex visualizations of how nutrients flow within the networks, and help identify sites that can store more carbon.
“We rely a lot on forests for carbon storage,” says Michael Beug, a professor emeritus of mycology at Evergreen State College who is not involved in SPUN. It stresses how intertwined forest and fungal networks are, as they depend on each other. “It’s a joint venture where both are essential.”
The SPUN project is funded by billionaire Jeremy Grantham with a donation of $3.5 million. “Beneath our feet is an invaluable ally in mitigating climate change – vast hidden fungal networks. Billions of tons of carbon dioxide annually flow from plants into fungal networks. However, these carbon sinks are poorly understood,” says Grantham, in Press release.
SPUN will start with 10,000 samples from the GlobalFungi Dataset, a database that includes research on fungi from around the world, and uses machine learning to predict the biodiversity of the fungal network globally. Over the course of 18 months, starting in April 2022, SPUN will collect an additional 10,000 samples from around the world to identify carbon storage hotspots. Among the potential hotspots are the Patagonian highlands, the Negev desert, and the Canadian tundra.
Beug is pleased that someone is looking to protect the fungi, which in turn will protect the forests and the world. He also hopes that this comprehensive map will help identify many unknown fungi—only 10 percent of the fungi may have been named, he estimates.