Friday, April 6, 2012

The Forest's Unseen Hero: Fungus

This post comes from Meika Jensen, a freelance writer with and an aspiring graduate student at UC Berkeley looking to study the development of communications. Follow her on Twitter @MeikaJensen

Fungus is an important part of the ecosystem that is often overlooked and ignored, even by those in top masters degree programs or who are studying environmental sciences. But the time to remember is now. Fungi are essential because they not only play a symbiotic role with other plants but it also serves as a food source for mammals and invertebrates. Familiar fungi with common household uses include mushrooms and yeast, used in the making of bread, and mold, the source of penicillin. Spores and molds are included the fungi species and are vital to the ecosystem.

The role of fungus in the ecosystem is diverse, as it serves many purposes. Arbuscular mycorrhiza (AM) fungi is present in two-thirds of the plant species. Its purpose is to decompose and process organic matter, but it thrives especially on extracting nitrogen from plants, essential for amino acid building proteins in our bodies. Fungi that efficiently process organic matter are the foundational agents for producing new healthy plants. This makes a healthy fungi microsystem essential for removing dead plant life and encouraging new growth.

In addition, fungi are also indispensable and instrumental in the production of phosphorous. Phosphorous is the essential element in cell division of plants and is vital for seedlings and young plant growth. Without a phosphorous base in the soil, plants grow spindly and produce stunted stems and tips. Phosphorous is necessary for strong grasses and farm crops.

Another important action of fungi is to withdraw crucial elements from the roots of trees to decompose rocks and turn them into soil. Fungi are actually an elemental extractor, decomposer, and creator of healthy soil. In turn, the healthy soil becomes the foundation for plants. In a symbiotic effect, the plants become fodder for animals and the livestock become the nutritional providers for humans.

The destruction of fungus eliminates the crucial tools for a new and healthy life cycle of the plants. This, in turn, produces crops and grasses that cannot sustain population or mammal growth, both which threaten the food supply of humanity. Unhealthy soil is the beginning of the destruction of the food chain that moves to plants, then animals and then humans. Lack of nutritious soil is devastating to humanity as we know it.

Puffball fungus: a forest nutrient cycler

Within the last decade, the uses and functions of fungi have been more researched and better understood and recorded to emphasize the critical role of fungi in the ecosystem. This new knowledge has enabled researchers to implement beginning standards for protecting fungi in the ecosystem. In the UK, there is a pilot project to protect varieties of fungi from 16 various leading botanical and biological research organizations, including the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Cabi. The parameters of the study envelope conservation and study of the diversity of fungi, contributing to the knowledge and public awareness of the function and scope of fungi, increasing research and resources to create a more diverse source of biological habitat, and to encourage more scientists to specialize in the field of taxonomic mycology.

At present there are only 10 mycologists in the UK, a number far too few to study such an important resource of our ecosystem. Though this mycologist shortage may seem esoteric to many, however it is a pressing issue as their research can be used in fields like medicine and engineering. Mold is often linked to costly problems in other industries, for instance the airlines, and require a trained mycologist to solve them.

While mycology degree programs do exist, encouraging more students to study the subject, or to go elsewhere and do an exchange program, may do the UK a great service. The John Innes Centre is one of the leading mycology institutes in the world but the bulk of the programs are located in other countries. However, in light of recent economic events, alerting students to viable professional opportunities may be all it takes to fill these positions.

1 comment:

  1. I've had a mold remediation company hired before to clean up my kitchen that has acquired to many molds. I didn't know about their role in our environment though. This information is an opener.