ANDERSON – With every step hikers take along the trails of Indiana state forests, they’re getting closer than they think to a vast microbial network that some scientists believe could play a crucial role in mitigating climate change.
“As you walk, there are about 300 miles of fungi under your every step, and that’s around the world,” says Suzanne Simard, professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, in Fantastic Fungi. A 2019 documentary that examines how fungi contribute to the maintenance and regeneration of plants and microorganisms in nature.
Fungi are considered by many researchers to be the threads that help bind ecosystems together. They attach themselves to plant roots and diverge in all directions, indirectly connecting the most majestic trees to the smallest sources of nitrogen and other elements necessary for life. Mycelia, the root-like structures of fungi, are the vessels through which this connection occurs.
“Almost everyone is familiar with the computer internet. The mycelium has the same network design,” says mycologist Paul Stamets in Fantastic Fungi.
In Indiana, fungi are also considered essential to keeping harmful pests at bay and maintaining the overall health of vegetation in the state’s 4.2 million acres of woodland. Of particular concern is the Asian jumping worm, which looks very similar to the European earthworm, but instead of adding nutrients to the soil through its excrement, it consumes large amounts of organic matter, robbing nearby plants of a vital food source.
“They end up turning the organic matter and topsoil at the edge of the forest into an almost coffee-ground consistency, which makes growing our traditional Indiana native crops very difficult,” said Hans Schmitz, conservation agronomist at the expansion’s Purdue Conservation Cropping Systems initiative.
Scientists have also found that gradually rising temperatures in many parts of the world — including the Midwest — can affect fungi’s ability to replenish nitrogen and other elements in the soil.
“Fungi and microbial activity in the soil are strongly influenced by soil temperature, so canopy closure is extremely important for soil temperature regulation,” Schmitz said.
“A floor that’s in shade all the time will be significantly cooler than one that gets direct sunlight. So when we look at land use, land cover and climate change in soils, we can be sure that there is always something growing on our soils and being able to regulate that temperature is very important.”
These findings, Schmitz says, have implications for farmers and conservationists alike, as crop rotation and other farming practices continue to come under scrutiny.
“So we’re seeing a little bit more focus on conservation farming and wetland restoration and returning some of our acres to more native habitats,” he said.
“A lot of labs are now actually trying to … identify specific fungal populations and the amount of that population that is available in the soil, knowing that there are beneficial fungi, and the higher your fungal population in the soil is indicative of those.” productivity of this earth.”
Another area of concern is the role of fungi in helping trees, plants, and other vegetation recover from catastrophic weather events. Although research on this topic is still sparse, Schmitz says a general principle is that recovery is faster in forested areas because of higher levels of soil organic matter there. The more organic matter there is, Schmitz said, the more fungi can help nature heal itself.
“In general, given the high initial populations, we should expect fungi to be a very large part of the recovery of this system given that this situation is where this forested ecosystem with the high amount of foliage and organic matter settles in,” he said.
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