The magic of mycelium

If you read our conversation with Funga co-founders Lauren Serota and Colin Averill, you know we have so much to learn about the fungal networks living below the ground. New research suggests that the types of fungi in soil and how they interact with plants growing there plays a huge role in how effectively that soil sequesters carbon. Scientists are discovering that intentionally cultivating healthy soil microbiomes could be an important climate mitigation strategy. A complex and under-explored universe awaits beneath our feet.

So much more than mushrooms

You’ve probably encountered fungi mostly as shiitakes in your stir fry or toadstools on your terrace. But the umbrella shaped fruiting bodies that come to mind when you think of a fungus are quite literally the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this kingdom of organisms. Mushrooms are fungi, but only a small percent of fungal species actually produce them. Fungi live everywhere — from the air to the ocean to the soil — and it is estimated that there are more than 5 million unique species.

Fungi usually grow in soil as long strands called hyphae, which wind their way through the upper soil horizons. Hyphae are typically just a few micrometers in diameter, but a single thread can span in length from a few cells to several meters.

Grouped masses of hyphae are called mycelium. They branch and grow through soil like tiny roots. Numerous mushrooms you see aboveground might all be the fruits of one individual fungus whose mass is primarily hidden beneath the surface. The largest single organism on the planet is a fungus in eastern Oregon, which was discovered in 1998, and sprawls for nearly 10 square kilometers.

A productive pairing

Fungi and plants exist in a symbiotic relationship referred to as mycorrhiza. In these arrangements, which are found on about 90 percent of all land plants, hyphae anchor themselves onto plant roots and absorb the nutrients they need to expand outward. Plants can have several different fungal partners, and each mycelium can attach to several host plants.

Fungi provide essential services to the plants in return. Their microscopic strands extend out much further than the roots themselves, so they can deliver water and nutrients from distances the plant couldn’t otherwise reach. Mycelia make up a large portion of soil organic matter and help keep soil structurally intact, which we know is crucial not only for plant health but also for carbon storage, since disturbed or eroding soil releases greenhouse gases back out into the atmosphere.

Farming with fungi

Numerous studies show that an active soil microbiome increases plant health and yield, meaning it’s generally in a farmer’s best interest to ensure that their soil fungi thrives. Season after season of monoculture planting, heavy plowing, and destructive pest intervention will wipe out the soil microbial communities that keep plants happy and carbon reserves stable. Conversely, regenerative agriculture practices such as crop rotation and diversification, reduced tillage, and eliminating chemical pesticides, promote a lively fungal network, and can reestablish mycorrhizal systems on depleted land.

Biotech company Trace Genomics uses soil DNA extraction and sequencing to index and quantify the soil microbiome in a given plot of land. Working with crop scientists, they are able to recommend management strategies for stronger fungal webs and therefore more productive fields.

Learning more about the importance of fungi in agriculture only substantiates what we already know about the need for a shift towards land stewardship for the sustained viability of our food supply. While technological development can enhance and drive forward a transition into conservation-focused farming, learning from and supporting the age-old sustainable land management methods developed and still practiced by Indigenous communities around the globe must be the bedrock upon which we build a better food system.

Talking trees

Fungi act as lines of communication among organisms in forest ecosystems. Not only do mycorrhizae move water and nutrients through the soil, but they also transmit biochemical signals between trees to disseminate information about resource availability or incoming danger throughout the forest.

Forests (and prairies, grasslands, chaparral, and tundra for that matter) are less like a collection of individual plants that happen to live near one another, and more like a giant super-organism. An interwoven, interdependent plant community is a stable plant community. Stronger plants can offload excess resources to less competitive ones, and hormones transferred through fungal networks can even warn of pest attacks.

In a 2020 profile of revolutionary forest ecologist Suzanne Simard in the New York Times, the reporter writes: “What one tree produces can feed, inform or rejuvenate another. Such reciprocity does not necessitate universal harmony, but it does undermine the dogma of individualism and temper the view of competition as the primary engine of evolution.” Fungi facilitate an ecosystem practice that “verges on socialism,” and we’re only beginning to understand the significance of that.

Organizations like Funga, and Kääpä — a Finnish “mycological solutions” company — are working on sustainable forest management strategies that center the magic of mycelia. Here at Farm we are acutely aware of how vital forests are to the health of our planet — from carbon sequestration, to biodiversity, to air and water filtration, and beyond. Digging deeper into this heretofore under-appreciated mushrooming life force is not only a venture of scientific curiosity, but a critical means of ecological stewardship.