Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Global Warming and Fungal Biodiversity

It is perhaps not widely known that fungi - including Aspergillus - have a profound influence on our climate.
We have often mentioned and it is often stated elsewhere that fungi are the 'refuse recyclers' of the world. Without the work that fungi do to break down all dead plant and animal material we would quickly be submerged in non-composted rubbish!

Breaking down dead organic material results in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We know that carbon dioxide is a 'greenhouse gas' that makes a major contribution to raising global temperatures. It follows that changes in the amount of recycling by fungi will have a large effect on global warming. We need to study the mechanism to find out just how important fungi might be!

A Stanford University research team have set out to find out more by taking hundreds of soil samples from multiple sites across Northern America. At each site they took samples from the surface where it was thought most decomposition takes place, and samples from deeper into the soil where it was thought different fungal species co-exist and co-operate with plant roots (Mycorhizzal fungi). Modern DNA sequencing techniques allow us to accurately identify virtually all the fungi in each sample and 10 000's were detected.

There were quite a few surprises!

  • It turns out that particular species/strains tend to live in local areas. West coast species tended not to be found on the east coast or mid west and vice versa.
  • Despite the fact that different fungi were present in different areas they all seemed to be doing the same job of decomposition in the same way
  • Fungi that live deeper in the soil seem to be doing a lot more of the decomposition work than was thought.
Because these fungi are important influencers of global warming we now need to do more work to understand what is going on - why particular species are not more widely dispersed, why they all work in the same way (e.g. why do we have thousands of species when they all apparently do the same thing) and the potential there is for changing the amount of carbon dioxide released if we for example remove the plant life from the soil that we now know supports fungi that release CO2.

This work was largely looking at soil samples taken in forests. Does this work tell us more about the consequences of deforestation?

Stanford University announcement

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