Scientist says mushrooms could revolutionize fight against climate change

Fungi and lichens are seen on a fallen tree in the Bialowieza Primeval Forest near the village of Teremiski in eastern Poland on October 1, 2021. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP) (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/ AFP via Getty Images)

Visit any forest and you’re bound to see mushrooms growing alongside trees and other plants, but these mushrooms play an important role in the health of that ecosystem and its ability to fight climate change.

Colin Averill, ecologist and senior researcher at ETH Zürich, has been studying the relationship between fungi and forests for 15 years.

“Mostly because it seemed incredibly important, and yet at the time very few people were doing it,” Averill said.

Averill specifically focuses on what it calls the fungal microbiome of a forest. He said these fungi play an essential role in the health of every plant on Earth.

“My team and I are studying how, in particular, which microscopic fungi live on the roots of a tree can affect the functioning of an entire force, the growth rate of trees, their ability to resist drought and disease, the amount of carbon that trees can capture and store in tree stems and in soils,” Averill said.

Averill said the partnership between fungi and plants plays a critical role in how plants can access the soil nutrients and water they need to survive.

Their survival is important because plants act as natural air purifiers. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air and use it as fuel for photosynthesis, the process that provides them with food. Plants then expel the oxygen they create during this process.”

According to Averill, Earth’s ecosystems absorbed about a third of all carbon dioxide emissions emitted by humanity.

“In that way, you know, the earth acts as a buffer in the global climate system and does us a huge favor in that regard,” Averill said. “Forests and other natural ecosystems couldn’t perform this service without the help of their symbiotic fungi, mycorrhizal fungi, which are needed to support forests with the nutrition they need to absorb all that extra carbon dioxide.”

Averill said some of these fungi have been linked to faster tree growth, which can lead to more CO uptake.

When forests get sick

Another big part of Averill’s research involves mapping the fungi living in a particular forest and how that fungal balance plays a role in the overall health of that ecosystem. He said the research can be compared to medical research that has shown the role gut bacteria play in a person’s overall health.

“This early science has become the foundation for new medical therapies that restore a person’s gut microbiology to treat these diseases,” he said.

Averill said he and his team are trying to figure out if a forest that has weakened due to the loss of the fungi it needs to survive can be cured.

“Can we restore the fungal microbiome of the forest and, in doing so, build a healthier forest that can sequester more carbon, that can better fight climate change? He asked.

According to Averill, DNA sequencing has become more cost-effective over the past five years and has allowed researchers to better map the fungal microbiomes that inhabit forests. This information can then be used in the search for treatment.

“We have set up large-scale field trials in Mexico and Wales in the UK, where we have manipulated forest fungal microbiomes and track the results for tree growth and capture and removal. carbon,” Averill said.

Pollution and fungi

In addition to carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is another pollutant produced when burning fossil fuels. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, N2O also comes from agriculture and sewage, and it accounts for about 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Averill said this N2O essentially acts as nitrogen fertilizer as it makes its way to forests and other ecosystems. Although fertilizing forests might seem like a good thing, Averill said, not so fast.

“There are winners and losers in this process, but, essentially, it has radically changed the fungi that live in the forest,” Averill said. “Unfortunately, the mushrooms that won happen to be those that are linked to forests storing less carbon in the ecosystem.”

A fungal “revolution”

Averill said he believes understanding the role fungi play in plants’ ability to absorb and store carbon can help revolutionize the toolkit humanity uses to fight climate change.

“Mushrooms have the potential to enable really serious climate mitigation, and I want to emphasize that, at the moment, we are only at the very beginning of this revolution,” Averill said.

Averill co-founded a company called Funga aimed at getting the right native mushrooms to the right forests. The goal is to create more resilient forests capable of capturing and storing more carbon.

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Teresa H. Sadler