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Fungus Amongus!

Fly agaric mushroom, red with white spots

Fungus is everywhere.  Mushrooms grow in the wild and in our cities.  Mold grows quickly everywhere, from our basements to our kitchens and shower curtains. Different species of fungus also grow underground.  No, I’m not talking about the truffles we shave onto our fries and pasta.  Apparently there are giant underground networks of fungus and microbes, stretching across huge forests and other biomes, and scientists have begun to map them.

So, how do you begin to figure out what species lives where, when they are underground?  As it turns out, different species of fungus grow along different plant roots in a symbiotic relationship. The plants get different nutrients through the fungus, along with protection from diseases and pests. The fungus get nutrients from the host plant, and a place to grow and spread their spores.

Timelapse of mushroom quickly growing tall and growing a web that looks like a dress made of netting, from the top to the ground.
Photo courtesy of imgur

About 90 percent of plants have a species of fungus or some symbiotic bacteria living on them, from crops, to bushes, to trees, and data on trees is what scientists used to begin the mapping process.  It’s estimated that Earth is home to around 3 trillion trees.  Thanks to a far-reaching group effort led by ecologist Thomas Crowther from Yale, and Jingjing Liang of Purdue University, global tree distribution was mapped in 2015.

Scientists have a lot of information about what types of trees and fungus prefer each other, and in what environments, so biologist Kabir Peay of Standford University reached out to Crowther to combine their data and kickstarted the mapping of underground network.

Using Crowther’s tree data and collected knowledge about different microbes living preferences, an algorithm was created that showed where certain types are more than likely to be, since the trees they pair with are in those locations. They are getting a great visual of what the fungus network probably looks like across the globe. Read more about their process in Stanford’s press release.

Since these fungus and microbes affect the amount of nitrogen and carbon dioxide in the atmoshphere, these maps could help predict temperature changes as the trend of global warming continues. Check out this interactive Global Forest Map to see how the population of trees has changed around the globe since 2001.

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