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Fungus governs soil's carbon content

January 28, 2014, by Tim Radford

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The soil stores the greater part of the Earth’s carbon. Just how much it stores is determined largely by what sort of fungi live in the roots of plants and trees, researchers have found.

LONDON, 28 January – Most of the planet’s carbon is neither in the forests nor the atmosphere. It is in the soil under your feet. US scientists think that they have identified the mechanism that keeps most of this awesome treasury of carbon locked away in the soil – or surrenders much more of it back to the atmosphere. The answer is: a fungus.

This answer matters because what happens to soil carbon is critical to predicting the planet’s future climate, according to Colin Averill of the University of Texas at Austin.

He and colleagues from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and Boston University in Massachusetts report in Nature that the storage of carbon in soils is influenced by the mycorrhizal fungi that live in symbiotic relationships with plants.

In a symbiotic relationship, creatures benefit from each other, and in this case the fungi extract nitrogen from the soil, and make it available to the roots of the growing plant. Plants take carbon from the air to make their tissues; when a tree falls, or a branch breaks, or a shrub dies, most of the carbon gets back into the atmosphere through decomposition. But some gets buried, and stays in the soil

Averill and colleagues decided to look at the respective roles of two kinds of mycorrhizal fungus: one group known as ecto- and ericoid mycorrhiza (EEM), and another called arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM). The first produce enzymes that degrade nitrogen.

Out-competing microbes

That means that whenever there is organic nitrogen in the soil, the fungi take the greater share: they compete with soil microbes for the soil nutrients.  So the scientists predicted that if the EEM type was dominant, then there would be greater proportions of carbon conserved in the soil.

They then looked at all the known data about soil carbon and nitrogen in various ecosystems: the boreal forests of the north; the temperate woodlands, the tropical forests and the grasslands.

Where the proportions of arbuscular mycorrhiza were highest, the levels of soil carbon tended to be lower. In an EEM world, there could be 70% more carbon stored in the soil. Unexpectedly, they found that the relationship was independent of, and mattered far more than, the effects of net primary production, temperature, rainfall and levels of soil clay. What mattered most was the type of fungus dwelling in the roots of the forest trees, or the savannah grasses.

“Natural fluxes of carbon between the land and atmosphere are enormous and play a crucial role in regulating the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in turn, the Earth’s climate”, said Averill.

“This analysis clearly establishes that the different types of symbiotic fungi exert major control on the global carbon cycle, which has not been fully appreciated or demonstrated until now.”

Complex relationships

The research, once again, is a reminder that climate models depend on an understanding of how the world works, and that there is still much more to understand about planetary workings. Fungi are mostly invisible. Ceps, morels, chanterelles, truffles and field mushrooms are edible prizes that pop up from the soil, but most of the fungal action is below the soil.

The biggest single creature on the planet is not the blue whale but a fungus that covers 10 square kilometers of soil in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, in the US.

The research is a reminder of a secret kingdom buried in the first metre or so of the world’s soils, a kingdom with profound influence on the machinery of the planetary carbon cycle.

“The research is not only relevant to models and predictions of future concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases, but also challenges the core foundation in modern biogeochemistry that climate exerts major control over soil carbon pools,” said Adrien Finzi, of Boston University, one of the authors. – Climate News Network

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