How Mushrooms Are Helping Save the World

Anyone remember the carbon cycle from fourth grade science class? During photosynthesis, plants and trees suck in carbon dioxide—keeping it, at least temporarily, out of the atmosphere, and making forests an important part of the fight against climate change. A new study in Science shows that there's an unlikely hero in the process: mushrooms.

The researchers looked at forests in Sweden, which (along with other northern forests) sequester around 16 percent of all CO2 worldwide. They didn't know exactly where trees "put" all the carbon that they're taking in as fuel, but expected it would show up in leaves, needles, and other debris on the forest floor. Instead, they were surprised to find that fungi growing on tree roots was responsible for storing and processing as much as 70 percent of the carbon taken in by trees.

What does this mean? In part, it will help scientists come up with better models as they try to predict the effects of climate change. It also underscores the importance of wild places and natural systems in climate change. As much as we work on redesigning buildings and products and transportation, we also need to keep focusing efforts on just preserving nature, including the little things.

Mushroom image via Shutterstock