Fungi are a very diverse groups of organisms encompassing a wide range of life forms, from single celled to very complex multicellular organisms. They can be microscopic or present large fruiting bodies with underground systems that extend for miles or even hectares. About 100,000 species have already been identified, but scientists estimate a vast number of species are yet to be cataloged, with the total number ranging from 0.8 to 3.8 million species.
Some species can be detrimental to humans, animals and plants, such as mildews, canker, ringworm or thrush. However, due to its vast diversity, fungi occupy different niches in nature and are responsible for important ecosystem services, which benefit humans and the overall ecosystem.
Benefits of fungi
Fungi are an important part of soil biodiversity, and this diverse group of organisms can help tackle global challenges, including climate change and hunger. Fungi are closely interlinked with vegetation and carbon and nutrient cycling. As a result, they are major drivers of soil health and carbon sequestration, among other ecosystem functions. Let’s look at some benefits of fungi.
Fungi have the ability to transform nutrients in a way that makes them available for plants. Some fungi are decomposers which mean that they break down plant and animal debris, thus cycling nutrient and increasing their availability in the soil. They can also propel nitrogen fixation and phosphorus mobilization, two of the main nutrients required for plant development and productivity.
Carbon Cycling and Climate regulation
Fungi are important contributors to the soil carbon stock. They play a major part in the carbon cycle through the soil food web. Decomposers cycle carbon from litter and dead plant material, while other species living in mutual symbiotic association with plant roots (i.e., mycorrhizal fungi), provide more stable stocks of carbon.
Fungi are heterotrophic organisms; therefore, they rely on photosynthetic carbon to produce energy, and some species get this carbon from plant root exudates. Together, plants and fungi perform a process called soil carbon sequestration, capturing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it into the soil for decades if not hundreds of years. This important process not only improves soil fertility as it can also help reduce the excess carbon human activities have put into the atmosphere. In fact, a study show that biodiverse soils are able to capture up to 10 tons of CO2 per hectare per year.
Nutrition and food security
Some mushrooms are commonly found in the diets of many people around the world. These edible mushrooms are rich in nutrients such as vitamin B, C and D, fiber, minerals including potassium, phosphorus, calcium and they are also a good source of protein. In fact, many mushrooms rank above vegetables, and it comes to their protein content. For that reason, edible mushrooms are considered a good substitute for meat in vegetarian/vegan diets and in diets of people who don’t have access to meat.
In addition, edible mushrooms can be cultivated using agricultural waste, they don’t depend on fertile soil and don’t compete for resources with other food crops. Therefore, mushroom cultivation can reduce agro-waste while increasing food supply, farmers’ income and generating new employment opportunities.
Besides the benefits of fungi for the environment, they also provide health benefits for humans. In fact, six percent of edible mushrooms possess medicinal properties, which can help prevent diseases and boost our immune system.
Shiitake, for example, present antiviral properties and can reduce serum cholesterol. Other species are known to possess a number of other benefits such as inhibit tumor and the development of AIDS, anti-oxidative property and antidiabetic effect.
Fungi have been found to help degrade various pollutants from the environment, such as plastic and other petroleum-based products, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, and oil. Some of these substances are persistent toxins, which mean that they take a long time to break down in the environment and accumulate in humans and other species, presenting adverse effects on organisms. Therefore, fungi can act as a powerful tool to reduce environmental pollution.
In addition, studies show that some fungi species can help in ecosystem restoration by advancing reforestation in degraded soils and act as pest control seeing that some species are pathogens of arthropods or nematodes.
Mycelium, which is the root structure of mushrooms are now being used to replace unsustainable materials, such as plastic, synthetic and animal-based products. The products from Mycelium are biodegradable and require less water and land resources to be produced. Some of the mycelium-based products already in the market include packaging, clothes, shoes, sustainable leather, skincare products and others.
If you’d like to learn more about those products, check out these two companies: Mylo and Ecovative Design, and the work them have been doing.
How to Protect Soil Fungi
Numerous factors can jeopardize soil fungi diversity and functioning, including deforestation, land conversion to agriculture, soil degradation and salinization. Therefore, sustainable soil management and ecosystem conservation is essential in preserving fungi diversity and enhancing the benefits of its ecosystem services for human and nature.
Below, there are some other articles that you might be interested in:
- Soil biodiversity and human health
- Biochar: understanding its use and benefits
- Sustainable agriculture in Amazon could halt deforestation
This article was originally published here