Forest for the fungi with Lauren Serota and Colin Averill of Funga

Maia Welbel

Lauren Serota and Colin Averill are the founders of Funga, a new organization harnessing forest fungal networks to address the biodiversity and climate crisis. Funga combines modern DNA sequencing and machine learning technology with breakthrough research on the forest microbiome to put the right native, biodiverse communities of mycorrhizal fungi in the right place. We chatted with Colin and Lauren to learn about what exactly that means, and why now is the perfect time to get funky with fungi.

Congratulations on Funga’s launch! Can you give us the overview of your mission and what you do?

L: We use the forest fungal network to improve climate outcomes by creating healthier, more resilient trees and removing more carbon from the atmosphere. Our vision is to fundamentally change how forestry is done so that forests are seen not just for the trees, but also for the fungi. We want people to think about supporting biodiverse ecosystems not just above ground, but also in the soil.

What led you to co-found this company?

C: I lead a team of ecologists here at ETH Zürich to study the forest fungal microbiome, and specifically how which fungi are living on the roots of trees affects how fast they grow and their ability to capture carbon. I've been doing this for over a decade, and I don’t think there's ever been a moment until now, where we finally have the technology under control and at low enough cost to really roll this out at scale, while also seeing public demand to actually do something about climate change.

L: I spent my early career in tech, product design, and product strategy, and I realized that a lot of problems I wanted to solve had to do with where there was value in the market, and how organizations were run and incentivized. So I spent the past 10 years working to create upstream change that led to positive social environmental outcomes. I worked with small companies that wanted to capture market share, and large organizations that were trying to address new markets. We started Funga six months ago to do the same thing here.

Was there a specific moment that sparked the two of you to think “Now is the time to put Funga out into the world”?

C: It was really when I started talking to people outside of academia about my research on fungi. I was overwhelmed by how many people started reaching out to me saying, “Do you realize that you could build a product here?” Most climate and carbon cycle scientists have no idea that there's this much appetite out there because they're operating in completely different circles.

When you say you are improving forestry outcomes, what does that mean?

It’s everything from making the trees bigger so that people who want to make products out of them have a better livelihood; to making them healthier, more resistant to drought, pathogens, and stress. Ultimately, a positive forestry outcome is just having more forests because that is a positive from a climate and revenue perspective. So if we can make more forests that are healthier and doing the things we need them to do to keep us on this planet, that’s what we’re going for.

And how, specifically, is this work addressing the climate crisis?

C: The better trees grow, the more carbon they sequester. Right now, forests are already doing a good job of this — they currently absorb a third of what we emit as humans out of the atmosphere. But we have the potential to supercharge that by up to 70 percent. It could do so much to get us to climate impact goals in a sustainable and biological way that respects Earth's carbon cycle.

That's a cool way to think about it — in a way that respects Earth's carbon cycle.

L: We shouldn't expect the same thinking that got us here to get us out, or that there's one 'right' way. We're trying to provide one good solution in a portfolio of solutions, all of which are necessary to make the climate impact that needs to be made.

C: Forests as they exist today are one of the only carbon removal tech options out there that is ready to scale right now. That's why I think it's so important that we engage with these natural climate solutions.

Can you tell me more about how the technology that you're using works?

C: I like to draw an analogy to the work that's been done on the human microbiome. Over a decade ago now, medical microbiologists started using DNA sequencing to understand which bacteria live in people's guts. And they discovered that there is such thing as a healthy human microbiome and a sick human microbiome. So the next step was, “Can we change which bacteria live in your gut to make it healthy again?” That research led to therapies that are used now for gastrointestinal health issues. It's really wild how pervasive the effect of the microbiome is on the human body.

My research group has taken the same approach but in the forest. We look at the fungi, particularly the ones that live on the tree roots, and we started asking, “Is there a healthy and a sick fungal microbiome?” That’s what we've found by looking at hundreds of forests, where we know growth rates and forest dynamics, and we know, from DNA sequencing, which fungi live in soil. Step two is the same sort of question, “Can we turn a sick forest into a healthy forest? Can we rewild fungi? Can we identify high performing organisms from healthy forests and introduce them into these potentially sick ones to accelerate their growth and carbon capture?” We know the best case scenario is that the biome is complex and biodiverse. So we’re learning from nature to figure out what we can do at scale.

What is most exciting to you about this new research and launching the business?

L: I think it's exciting that people care. People are realizing that fungi is an entire kingdom of species that we need to understand better, and how much benefit there is to gain from it. That opens up interest in our work. Doing things that are double bottom line from a business perspective; the impending regulatory landscape, which is another incentive for businesses to do the right thing; and on the consumer side, a general interest in voting with dollars and supporting businesses that have net zero commitments, care about the lifecycle of their products, and make better decisions for the planet. I think that there is so much positive momentum —  people are, for the first time that I can recall, interested in making decisions that are well informed when it comes to long term climate impact and biological outcomes.

C: I'm stoked because no one else is really doing this in forestry. Every tree on earth has these fungi on their roots, but there’s basically no focus on it when we think about how to manage forest landscapes. People sort of tried in the 70s and 80s and it wasn’t really effective because they didn't have the technology to actually see what organisms they were working with. And that's what's really exciting to me —we finally have the tech and it's finally affordable enough. We also now have the interest in applying it from a completely new industry — rather than changing the old forestry industry, we can enter in from the carbon removal markets. We're especially excited about a ~27 acre field trial in Wales, U.K. run by The Carbon Community, testing our approach to fungal intervention at scale. Funga sees a future where fungal biodiversity can massively accelerate carbon removal of both production forestry and natural forest restoration globally.

What is a myth about fungi that you want to dispel, and one thing you wish everyone knew?

C: I'd love people to know that when they see a mushroom in the forest it is just the tip of the fungal iceberg. A mushroom is a fruit, like an apple on a tree. Most of the fungus that produces that mushroom lives below ground as invisible hyphal thread.

Nearly every tree on Earth forms a root symbiosis mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi are essential to tree biology. There's actually evidence that when plants first made the evolutionary leap from water to land they evolved the mycorrhizal symbiosis before they evolved roots!

Thank you, Lauren and Colin! We are so excited to be collaborating with innovators like you two who are as passionate about land-based climate solutions as we are.