Plants and fungi together could slow climate change

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

A new global assessment shows that human impacts have greatly reduced plant-fungus symbioses, which play a key role in sequestering carbon in soils. Restoring these ecosystems could be one strategy to slow climate change.

Human-induced transformations of Earth’s ecosystems have strongly affected distribution patterns of plant-fungus symbioses known as mycorrhiza. These changes have greatly reduced vegetation featuring a particular variety of mycorrhiza–ectomycorrhiza–a type of plant-fungal symbiosis crucially important for soil carbon storage. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, shows that loss of ectomycorrhizal symbiosis has reduced the ability of these ecosystems to sequester carbon in soils.

Most plant species form symbioses with various fungi, in which fungi provide plants with nutrients, while the plants provide carbon to the fungi. Previous research has shown that these relationships increase the potential of vegetation to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it in soils. However, because of the complexity of these relationships and multiple species involved, it has been difficult to estimate the global impact of such symbioses.

The study is the first to provide a global accounting of the distribution of mycorrhizal vegetation across the planet along with estimates of their contribution to terrestrial carbon stocks. Even with the loss of mycorrhizal symbioses, the study finds, that ecosystems encompassing mycorrhizal vegetation store on the order of 350 gigatons of carbon globally, compared to just 29 gigatons stored in non-mycorrhizal vegetation.

“Human activities such as agricultural practices have altered 50-75% of the Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems, transforming natural areas with previously strong carbon sequestering mycorrhizal plant-associations to much weaker relationships. By altering the plants that grow across much of the Earth’s surface from those with strong soil carbon storage to weak carbon storage we have potentially further contributed to increased atmospheric CO2,” says IIASA researcher Ian McCallum, a study co-author.

This study identifies a potential mechanism that could be used to decrease atmospheric CO2 via enhanced soil carbon storage. Restoring native vegetation that forms ectomycorrhizal symbiosis with soil fungi, especially in abandoned agricultural and barren land, the authors say, could help alleviate anthropogenic soil carbon losses and ameliorate increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases.

“Among the pathways available to mankind to reach the atmospheric CO2 removal goals, accumulation of carbon in vegetation and soil is one promising path, in which mycorrhizal symbiosis plays a very important role. Our new detailed maps of mycorrhizal distribution across the globe will allow for conscious policy design towards decreasing atmospheric CO2 by sequestering carbon in soil and plants,” says lead author Nadejda Soudzilovskaia, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands.



Soudzilovskaia NA, van Bodegom PM, Terrer C, van’t Zelfde M, McCallum I, McCormack ML, Fisher JB, Brundrett M, de Sá NC, Tedersoo L (2019). Global mycorrhizal plant distribution linked to terrestrial carbon stocks. Nature Communications DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-13019-2

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About IIASA:

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) is an international scientific institute that conducts research into the critical issues of global environmental, economic, technological, and social change that we face in the twenty-first century. Our findings provide valuable options to policymakers to shape the future of our changing world. IIASA is independent and funded by prestigious research funding agencies in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe.

From EurekAlert!


44 thoughts on “Plants and fungi together could slow climate change

  1. “….that ecosystems encompassing mycorrhizal vegetation store on the order of 350 gigatons of carbon globally, compared to just 29 gigatons stored in non-mycorrhizal vegetation.”

    …as in trees compared to wheat.

    • Ectomycorrhizas form on the roots of around 2% of plant species, … link

      OK then. Two percent of the plant species are able to sequester ten times as much CO2 as the other 98% of plant species.

      That’s an astounding claim. Applying Occam’s Razor, we might postulate that the claim is the result of innumerate biologists. The one claim is much easier to justify than the other.

      • Yes Bob, 10% more form 2% of anything does not amount to a hill of beans.

        a type of plant-fungal symbiosis crucially important for soil carbon storage.

        Well maybe there is an issue with farming disrupting the plant-fungus symbiosis. Sadly their never ending, ill-informed “carbon” obsession means they only have one interest in this issue; can they relate it carbon sequestration and global warming.

        OCD strikes again, obsessive carbon disorder.

        • I wonder if the practice of using considerable quantities of fungicides in agriculture is a factor.
          Not to mention the destruction of hyphae by repeated cultivations.
          And then there’s the question of monoculture . . . .
          There might be something in this.

          • Lots of people agree with you. Here’s a link to a number of WUWT stories on land use.

            Changing land use is a way more plausible driver of climate change than CO2 is.

      • “innumerate biologists”? I think you are on to something here.
        The majority of the 11,000 alarmist scientists claim to be biologists, while fewer than 5% of the 31,000+ skeptic scientists in the Oregon Petition are biologists. Should we ignore all biologists’ opinions about climate unless they also studied statistics and physics?

        • Should we ignore all biologists’ opinions about climate unless they also studied statistics and physics?

          That would also eliminate climate scientists – well 97% of them.

  2. Why can’t we break through on to the main media stage? Why are we stuck on blogs and websites?

    Don’t we have enough scientist’s who can get together and force themselves on to the main stage? If Mr broccoli can have main stage on uk national TV then I’m sure we can as well…. Can’t we protest outside news media centres, somebody will notice us… If smartly dressed scientist’s who speak nicely and factual make enough noise somebody will listen, and all it takes is one news media interview to get the ball rolling… common people like me, respond better to people who speak nicely and look like the common man, unlike the hippies of xr..

    • This article is important precisely because it is the area where we CAN break through to “the main stage.”
      I have been studying these things intently over the last few months, and attended my local climate strike, networking with those interested in this very subject. These plant and soil people will genuflect to “of course we have to reduce fossil fuels” but they are PLANT people and they do know what photosynthesis is. So they follow that by saying of course you don’t really have to worry about carbon dioxide because photosynthesis.

      This site and the rest of the skeptics have been beating our brains out trying to make alarmists wrong, just because they ARE wrong and devastating the economy and ecology with their [bleep]. NOBODY gets messages about you’re wrong. NOBODY. About anything.

      This article suffers from words like ‘mycorhizzal,” which I expect most of you do not know. Myco- is fungus. mycorhizzae are fungal fibers which can stretch a mile. Fungi are awesome, and we are just barely starting to appreciate them beyond medicinal mushrooms. If you don’t know a word, open a new window and look it up.

      This article deals with the one bright spot in the “Green New Deal” (or Paris). Fixing agriculture is profitable and this subject is saving some of our farmers. It is also about increasing organic matter in soil–that is what “sequestering carbon in soil” means. Everybody knows that increasing organic matter in soil will increase fertility. That in turn means better nutrition, which many of these people are interested in.

      One exercise you can do at home to observe effects on water balance is to get a Dixie cup and poke holes it the bottom to make a sprinkler. Pour some flour onto a small plate. Sprinkle with water to simulate rain falling on soil that has been plowed to dust like most American soils. The rain will bead up and then run off–just like the Midwest this Spring. Now get another plate and put a slice of bread on it. Bread has structure and air holes just like non-tilled natural soil. Sprinkle that, and the water will soak right in. Natural soils like that hold water, which makes them drought-resistant. The Midwest floods were followed by drought–they are NOT opposites. They have nothing to do with CO2, either.

      We are just beginning to learn about these things. There are a lot of ways to get it wrong, so we will be hearing plenty about that for a while. Over time, more and more people and farmers will get it right, and then we will move into a new Age of greater health and abundance, fulfilling certain Biblical prophecies.

      Learning about this is fun and when you learn, you can teach and their ears will be open. Eventually, they will drop the fossil fuels narrative because it is just too frustrating. Why fail when you can succeed?

      • What you are describing is wetting hysteresis, soils hold less water at a given potential on a wetding cycle than on a drying cycle. It has been known and studied for, I don’t know-maybe 25,000 years. Og, the proto-farmer who tried to water his emmer noted ” Water not soak into soil when too dry”. The phenomenon has been rediscovered every ten years ir so when some youngster not familiar with the published literature goes ” Eureka, climate scientists (insert the discipline of your choice) have discovered soil. News releases to follow on all the usual scientifically illiterate media.”

        • Is this the same as drying a washed car with a towel. If the towel is slightly moist it picks up more water from the car than a dry towel does.

          • I know I’m getting rather OT, but when it comes to the powers of a slightly moist towel, try using one as a potholder as opposed to a dry towel. The dry towel will provide adequate insulation against a hot pot, but the heat will pass rapidly through a moist towel. There must be a Climate Emergency Mitigation Grant in there somewhere. 😉

      • “As of the year 2000, about 37 percent of Earth’s land area was agricultural land. About one-third of this area, or 11 percent of Earth’s total land, is used for crops.”

        I apologize that for some reason I can’t transfer the IP URL from Chrome on my phone.

        My first question when reading the article and your comments led me to looking up how much landmass are they and you talking about. With only about 11% of the global landmass used for raising crops the impact would be much smaller than being talked about. This 11% can be reduced more when you remove crops like rice paddies and for cranberries grown in water. In the U.S. agricultural lands are already set aside to lay fallow that will promote what this talks about. But our government makes us till these lands of weeds, that those weeds being carbon are put back into the soil where they decay releasing carbon dioxide into the soil and promote fungi growth as well was making the soil loose that aids this too.

        The only way to increase all Flora – including microflora – is to increase atmospheric carbon dioxide that surface flora requires for growth, that takes the carbon into the soil by its root system and by decaying on the surface where it’s absorbed into the soil.

        That only under 11% of our landmass is used to raise crops and this study only effects a smaller percentage of that fraction, the impact will not make any measurable changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Over 99% of atmospheric carbon dioxide is from biomass exchanges between land and water sources, soil respiration and volcanic activity. The 2 ppm annual increases of atmospheric carbon dioxide are from that 99% and we humans only contribute the remainder by fossil fuels, cement manufacturing and other industries including farming.

      • The association of mycorhyzoids and plants has been known for a long time. Go to Amazon and type in mycorhyzoids and you get at least a dozen or more commercial products you can buy for the purpose of increasing plant health when you put into new plants.

        I’m am happy you have learned something new but don’t assume we are all ignorant of this linkage. No till farming which was developed by American Farmers came about because of this.

      • Your “plowed to dust” comment suggests to me you really don’t know much about farming and current farming practices. Besides the fact that plowing by itself would never create fine soil, the vast majority of farmers now use no till and low till methods. Over fertilization and runoff is a problem, and newer technologies will help address that, but it’s expensive equipment.

    • Look at this Tony Heller Youtube video. It’s garnered over 9000 views and 500 comments in short order. It seems to be effective.

  3. Is every paper now about estimating the global impact of something without demonstrating a causal relationship between the thing being estimated?

    • Not necessary. It plays a key role. Everything plays a key role. The “key” is there to unlock future funding.

      In “How to be a Brit”, George Mikes interprets the wording on a parking ticket “Wrong parking on a Queen’s way”: The Queen is there to emphasize a strong relationship between a wrong parking and treason.

  4. Now I am really puzzled. Given that more CO2 gives more plant growth, and that more greenery, (as in forests)
    is supposed to cool the already cool world – what is the problem?
    Finally – can know who is paying for this garbage?

  5. “This study identifies a potential mechanism that could be used to decrease atmospheric CO2 via enhanced soil carbon storage. Restoring native vegetation that forms ectomycorrhizal symbiosis with soil fungi, especially in abandoned agricultural and barren land”

    Huh? That’s what mother nature does… by herself… without help from man. It’s like these guys live in a world of static ideas with no connection to mother nature, whose ways are known and understood if you spend time with her, rather than in some artificial, sterile environment designed to remove her capricious ways as much as possible, in which everything becomes chess pieces moved about a mental chess board.

  6. Why aren’t the alarmists focusing on the overwhelming amount of unnecessary packing that is filling our landfills? Why aren’t they out in the Pacific with fishing trawlers netting all of the trash floating around? Why aren’t they out in numbers demanding all large cities start vertical farming to sustain themselves?

    I say it’s because they are all clueless dolts who really don’t care about ecosystems.

  7. More carbon in the soil is 90% of what distinguishes topsoil from subsoil.

    More carbon in soil makes for “better” soil.

    I’m all for better soil…but how is that to be done?

    Having more carbon in the atmosphere assures widespread distribution. Check.

    Most Fungi are pretty good at distributing spores and spontaneous plant growth (aka weeds) is ubiquitous. Check.

    Now all we have to do is stop growing crops…problem solved !!

    • “Restoring native vegetation that forms ectomycorrhizal symbiosis with soil fungi, especially in abandoned agricultural and barren land”

      ah nevermind

  8. Hmmm, land area of planet = 16 billion hectares, according to FAO arable (cultivable) land = 1.4 billion hectares, total agriculturally used land = 5 billion hectares including pasture lands, which is an incredibly high side number that assumes the boreal forest and jungle is agricultural land in some countries…..It would seem the authors claim of human agriculture altering 50-75% of terrestrial ecosystems is pretty bogus…..

  9. We don’t want carbon sequestered in the soil–we want it in the atmosphere where it’s available for foodstuff-generating plants to keep up with an expanding population!

  10. Roots exude strigo-lactones (a plant hormone) which act as a major signal molecule to allure soil fungi (“got something for you”) & explicitly elicit hyphal branching. There are different variations in strigolactones (derived from carotenoids).

    Modern plant breeding for desirable traits in some aspects may alter strigo-lactone functions. So this may be one way, as OP mentions, that outside (“ecto-“) root fungi (“mycorrhizia”) are less [incidentally, inside root fungi also exist, “endo-” mycorrhyzia]. An example follows.

    Though mostly synthesized in roots strigo-lactones do enter xylem vasculature, getting into the stem & exhibit dynamics with auxin (a plant hormone). In modern plant breeding sometimes the aim is to make it possible for growers to keep secondary growth down (ex: facilitate uniform mechanical harvesting ) & not use human unsuitable chemical growth regulators.

    Strigo-lactones elevated in the stem holds down auxin movement (inhibits auxin shuttling “PINS” from building up on plasma membranes). The auxin piles up, so to speak, in the stem & then the potential buds situated along the stem have nowhere to push their auxin out in the dynamic required to actually start a bud’s outgrowth.

    (The converse is that depressed strigo-lactone plants have increased transport of auxin upward. These plants have less auxin in the stem & the stem can take up auxin from incipient buds; resulting in greater numbers of activated buds. )

    Plant breeding for tidier growth habit inadvertantly interceedes with the natural feedback loop between auxin & strigo-lactones. It is auxin that naturally up-regulates (increases activity) of the genes involved in the synthesis of strigo-lactones. As the plant grows strigo-lactone levels rise, transport of auxin diminishes, auxin piles up & the plant doesn’t outgrow it’s habitat.

  11. A nephew of mine runs a small beef cattle stud in South East Australia. He is using these techniques to regenerate acres of poor soil on his property. Soils that were degenerated over the years. His motivation is nothing to do with atmospheric CO2. He is doing it to increase yields. So far he is achieving impressive results.

    His theory is better soils lead to better pastures which leads to better and healthier animals. His steaks are to die for.

    I find it unfortunate that by linking this technique to “Climate Change” has lead to negative comments. Is this because the original authors base their claims in terms of “Climate Change”or is there some automatic resistance to any mention of “Climate Change” that triggers these responses?

    I will sit on the fence on this one. I will support the views of my nephew on his farming techniques but I remain sceptical on any claims related to climate change, positive or negative.

  12. One more system that absorbs CO2 from the enviornment. Is it even practical to account for or quantify all these systems that add or subtract CO2 from the environment? It is certainly interesting to attempt to calculate all of this but it is absurd to think you can base policy on those calculations. It is man thinking we are god and can determine all things.

  13. Just sequestered two truckloads of carbon into my soil. (Rototill horse manure into my garden)
    Judging by the mushrooms growing in my lawn, fungus in my soil is not a problem. As long as there is food, life finds a way. Even in carbon rich soil like tar sand. Asphalt roofs, roads, parking lots not so much…

  14. Article: conducts research into the critical issues of global environmental, economic, technological, and social change that we face in the twenty-first century. Our findings provide valuable options to policymakers to shape the future of our changing world.

    In other words they are an activist group promoting the dangers of climate change and social change. A climate change that by their definition has not been proven only promoted and social change they hope to bring to an unsuspecting population.


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