Can Fungi Save the Planet?

Cutting up seven cups of mushroom for a butternut lasagna may have been the tipping point to learn about fungi. The source of my interest has many tributaries, a master gardener program, nature’s healing power, etc. Brushing off the remnants of soil clinging to the mushrooms, I wondered about the connection between fungi and the food we eat. What role does fungi play, if any, in the health of the plants we eat and the trees we depend on for the air we breathe? 

Fungi grow worldwide, especially in soil rich organic matter. While most fungi are helpful, some are responsible for diseases in plants and animals. My interest was in the good guys. By the way, the lichens you find on tree barks, and gravestones, rocks, and roofs are not a part of the fungi family. Clueless as to the lichen’s “good” relationship with its hosts, I used to brush it off the tree trunks on the trees in my yard. Neighbors asked why I was brushing the trunks. I didn’t want to say it was more about my general tidiness than a scientific query. Now I know that lichens live in harmony among the fungi fibers and tree trunks. No more brushing the trunks clean of lichen.

Rusty Rodriquez, a microbiologist, and his colleague, Regina Redman, visited hot springs at Yellow Stone National Park to better understand the relationship between fungi and plants. Scientists have studied the symbiotic relationship of fungi and plants, but mostly in labs.   

Rusty and Regina were surprised to find grasses—tropical panic grass—living on the edges of the hot springs. Few plants can survive soil temperatures of 150 degrees. They collected 200 plant samples from within a forty-mile range.  

Did fungi have something to do with the grass thriving in the extreme heat? Looking through the microscope in their lab, they discovered the same kind of fungi (Curvularia protuberate) in the in-between spaces of the plant cells. Taking plants with and without the fungi, they turned up the heat. The plants that coexisted with the fungi thrived. The others died. Their experiment has been repeated, always with the same results. These tiny microorganisms provide their host with the superpower to thrive in a hostile environment, drought, heat, and salt.

Everywhere plants grow in a symbiotic relationship with fungi (except for poisonous fungi), they flourish. Farmers growing non-organic mono-crops without the benefit of fungi compensate with fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides that in turn pollute our soil. It’s like growing organic plants in your community garden plot while others use chemicals in theirs, and the community uses Roundup to kill weeds. 

Professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard confirms the benefits of fungi for forests. Her new book, Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, details how the older trees in natural forests support other trees through root and fungi connections. Cutting down trees and replanting is often unsuccessful unless some of the older trees in a relationship with fungi are left in place to nurture the saplings, transporting water and nutrients through the roots.

Microorganisms are invisible to the human eye. Some cultures, such as American Indians, knew intuitively that diversity of plants and trees growing together made for a healthier outcome. Like people, they need the company of like-minded organisms. This discovery has the potential to transform how we plant crops and sustainably regrow forests.   

Crop and tree farmers (and the lumber industries) can use the wisdom of nature to rethink their methods. As we find ourselves experiencing increasing climate extremes, we need a patient approach like the Navy Seals’ motto: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”  


PBS. Can a Fungus save plants from global war?

Ted Talk. Suzanne Simard. How trees talk to each other.

Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest