Scientists Want to Map Trillions of Miles of Underground Fungus Networks

They store roughly 5.5 billion tons of carbon in the soil.
Derya Ozdemir

This year, for the first time, scientists will set out on a journey to map out one of the final frontiers of uncharted knowledge on the planet: the fungal networks that basically make up our planet's circulatory system.

And the fungi's whole corpus of knowledge is hidden deep beneath our feet. In the soil, fungi utilize carbon to form "nutrient highways" that connect plant roots and exchange carbon for nutrients. And, despite the fact that trillions of miles of underground fungal networks are believed to exist across the earth, we know very little about them.

This is why the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN) is launching a new initiative that will collect 10,000 samples from hotspots discovered using AI all across the world. The goal of the mission is to safeguard these networks from harm while simultaneously enhancing their ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide since they are essential for soil biodiversity and fertility.

The quest to map the Earth's underground fungal networks

To put things in perspective, you should first know that the entire length of the fungal network in the top 3.9 inches (10 cm) of soil is more than approximately 280 quadrillion miles (450 quadrillion km), which is almost half the span of our galaxy, according to BBC News.

And in what is thought to be the first broad effort to map a subterranean ecosystem in this way, the first samples will be gathered in Patagonia for roughly 18 months next year. Then, using machine learning, a map of the function of the fungal networks and their role as carbon sinks (anything that collects more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than its releases) will be created. This is incredibly important since, according to current estimates, the amount of carbon dioxide collected from the atmosphere and stored in the soil by fungal networks is at roughly 5.5 billion tons. Moreover, that figure could be more than three times higher, BBC News reports. 

The maps will next be used by scientists to identify the most vulnerable ecosystems, as these fungal networks are threatened by agricultural growth, the use of fertilizers and pesticides, deforestation, and urbanization, per The Guardian. Then, local conservation organizations will take the lead in creating "conservation corridors" for the underground ecosystems.

"If we lose this system, this is going to have really serious consequences for our ability to fight climate change," Toby Kiers, professor of evolutionary biology at VU University in Amsterdam, told BBC News. She said fungi are "the invisible ecosystem engineers and their loss is totally undocumented."

The ten hotspots that have been identified by the scientists are in the Canadian tundra, the Mexican plateau, high altitudes in South America, Morocco, Western Sahara, Israel’s Negev desert, the steppes of Kazakhstan, Tibet's grasslands and high plains, and the Russian taiga. And the world will surely be watching this initiative since these vast, hidden networks are invaluable allies in curbing the worst effects of human-caused climate change.

And according to Jane Goodall, the English conservationist, primatologist, and anthropologist who is advising the project, "An understanding of underground fungal networks is essential to our efforts to protect the soil, on which life depends, before it is too late."

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