Climate: Do fungi drive the forest carbon cycle?

A mushroom and spruce seedling grow intertwined in a Colorado forest. Bob Berwyn photo.

In some forests, up to 70 percent of carbon sequestration happens deep underground

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Humble mushrooms may play a much greater role in regulating forest carbon cycles than previously understood, according to new research from Sweden.

Most scientific literature suggests that the plant matter in northern forests is responsible for sequestering atmospheric carbon, but after carefully analyzing numerous soil samples, the Swedish scientists concluded that mycorrhizal fungi, which live in association with plant roots, are trapping the carbon deep in the ground as part of the process of nutrient exchange between the fungi and plant species.

Many tree species are associated with specific fungal species, with the two organisms nearly melding at the cellular level. In the Swedish birch forests where the research was conducted, the scientists found that up to 70 percent of the stored carbon was in the roots and associated microorganisms, and that changes in the forest carbon cycle are directly affected by shifts in the fungal communities.

In other words, if something happens that changes the composition of mushroom species, it has the potential to affect how much carbon the forests capture. The research could help inform forest management decisions in the context of climate change.

Although very little is known about mycorrhizal fungi in American forests, scientists have documented that some species proliferated at elevated levels of carbon dioxide or dwindle with excess levels of nitrogen. Wildfires also seem to decrease the abundance of carbon-trapping fungi.





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