Israel’s Negev Desert chosen to feature in first global fungi map

Society for the Protection of Underground Networks will collect thousands of samples from 10 environments in search of carbon-storing hotspots to protect

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Tulips bloom in the mountains of the Negev desert after four days of rain  (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Tulips bloom in the mountains of the Negev desert after four days of rain (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Israel’s Negev Desert has been chosen as one of 10 hotspots in the world where fungi — among nature’s unseen heroes — are to be mapped globally for the first time.

The initiative, launched by an organization called the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN), will focus on vast subterranean networks of fungal threads that interact with the roots of around 90 percent of plants and could be key to absorbing large amounts of carbon.

“Fungal networks underpin life on Earth. If trees are the ‘lungs’ of the planet, fungal networks are the ‘circulatory systems,’” Mark Terceka, a member of the governing body for SPUN, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

While mushrooms are the most visible body parts of fungi, they are just the reproductive organs, roughly akin to the fruits of plants, although they produce spores rather than seeds.

Beneath them run massive networks of fungal threads, known as mycelium.  SPUN estimates that in the top ten centimeters (3 inches) of soil alone is enough fungal mycelium to span “around half the width of our galaxy.”

And these networks suck in massive amounts of carbon, which SPUN estimates could be between 5 and 17 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. The low estimate is equal to more than half of all energy-related CO₂ emissions in 2021.

Mycelium. (Lex vB at Dutch Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

“It is generally assumed that rainforests hold the majority of the earth’s terrestrial carbon, but high-latitude below ground ecosystems hold 13 times more carbon,” SPUN says.

However, these networks are threatened amid fears that “more than 90% of the Earth’s soil will be degraded by 2050” due to manmade threats ranging from habitat loss, agricultural chemicals, pollution, and deforestation, to climate change-related risks of extreme temperatures, drought, and floods.

This is why SPUN scientists hope to map the networks to identify areas and ecosystems facing the greatest threats and, according to the Guardian, to link up with local conservation organizations to create “conservation corridors” for these underground systems.

These would be the subterranean equivalent of aboveground ecological corridors seen today as essential for connecting nature reserves and allowing animals (and plants) free movement as open space gives way to urban development.

High-resolution mycelium network .(Victor Caldas)

SPUN, whose work is being funded by British-born billionaire investor Jeremy Grantham, has already mapped its first 10,000 network samples, and over the next 18 months, will collect an additional 10,000 across varied ecosystems, on all of Earth’s continents.

Other than the Negev Desert in southern Israel, these will include Morocco, the steppes of Kazakhstan, the western Sahara, the grasslands and high plains of Tibet, the tundra in Canada, the boreal forest of Russia, the Mexican plateau, and high-altitude areas of South America.

Fungal networks also provide what has been dubbed the “Wood Wide Web,” or “information superhighway,” through which plants exchange information, and even food.

There is already significant research into the Negev’s fungal networks.

Dr. Isabella Grishkan, a senior lecturer at the University of Haifa in northern Israel, has been researching Negev fungal networks for decades, although her focus is on free-living networks that function independently of plant roots.

The networks that she studies perform the key role of breaking organic waste down into its constituent elements.

Grishkan, who has identified 450 species within these free-functioning networks, noted the surprisingly rich diversity of fungi in such a hostile environment.

She has discovered that most manage to survive the Negev’s extreme heat and dryness by using melanin, the dark pigment that also helps humans to cope in desert environments.

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