How Mushrooms Can Help Aid The Climate Crisis

This just in: the fungi kingdom might hold some of the answers for combating climate change. But these answers won’t be found in what you picture when you think of a typical mushroom. Instead, they lie within part of the fungi that are invisible to our daily awareness.

Mushrooms have an intricate root system called mycelium that provides the mushroom body with nutrients. Mycelium also cleanses the surrounding soil of toxins while working to decompose dead plant and animal matter. And importantly, these root systems can actually exist apart from a mushroom body. This type of fungi is called mycorrhizal fungi. Scientists are hoping to unlock answers to solving the climate crisis within this category of fungi.

Mycorrhizal fungi exist entirely underground and survive by clinging to the root systems of other plants. They form a symbiotic relationship with the plants, in which the mycorrhizal fungi release enzymes to break down dead matter and convert it into nutrients within the soil for plants to consume. These root systems are extremely complex, and their total length in the top 10cm of the soil reaches more than 280 quadrillion miles globally.

So how does this help with global warming? Mycorrhizal fungi need carbon dioxide (CO2) to survive. People may think that trees in forest ecosystems do all of the work to absorb CO2, but it is actually fungi that hold down the fort. Mycorrhizal fungi keep CO2 locked in their system to aid in the decaying process. This prevents CO2 from trapping heat in our atmosphere, making mycorrhizal fungi networks one of the earth’s largest carbon sinks. Plants are estimated to transfer 5 billion tons of carbon to mycorrhizal fungi every year.

Unfortunately, with increasing forest degradation comes the destruction of mycorrhizal fungi. More and more plant matter is being cleared from construction and agricultural sites. Supporting decomposition by allowing plant materials to decay instead of removing them helps conserve the fungi in the soil. Preserving these systems, instead of removing them, is becoming more crucial by the day.

However, there is still room for hope. Efforts to fight deforestation paired with regenerative agriculture provide space for soil restoration by allowing mycorrhizal fungi to thrive.