Mycorrhizal Fungi -The hidden world beneath our feet
Did you know that our collective future could well depend on our coming to understand the role fungi plays in our environment?
Mycorrhizae (pronounced my-co-RIZ-ee) are defined as fungi that grow in association with the roots of a plant in a symbiotic relationship. Mycorrhizae manage the “underground economy”, making nutrients available to plant roots, facilitating communication between plants, and even protecting plants against diseases and pests. What’s more, they sequester (isolate) carbon in the soil in much more meaningful ways than any “carbon offsets” humans could ever devise, which means focussing on the health and wellbeing of these microscopic soil fungi is a crucial climate change solution.
This fungus-plant alliance stimulates plant growth and accelerates root development. Fungi break down nutrients in the soil that the roots could not have done so themselves, and the fungi receives carbohydrates and other nutrients from the plant that the fungi cannot produce themselves because they lack the ability to photosynthesise.
Picture credit: Diagram by Michael Phillips outlining the ‘Underground Economy’
The fungi produce enzymes that break down the soil into simple compounds, which significantly improves the soil health and the ability for plants to be able to grow in that soil.
They are not just decomposers, they are the orchestrators of soil biodiversity, and without them the world would be a very different place.
The first plants to make the move from the sea to the land did so without roots, relying instead on a dynamic relationship with fungi to provide nutrients and water. 450 million years later, most plants continue to form symbiotic relationships with fungi. Of all the plants we have on earth, over 90% of them form mycorrhizal relationships.
As we grow our understanding of these organisms, we are beginning to understand the damage we are causing to our environment. When the soil is disturbed by human activity, the quantity of mycorrhizae decreases drastically, to the point that there are not enough of them to produce a significant benefit on plant growth and health.
We must spread awareness of these vital organisms before it is too late. If we find ways to help them thrive, we will also thrive.
Here is a video by the BBC about these fungal networks.