Scientists Uncover Role of Underground Fungi in Combating Air Pollution


The world’s battle against air pollution and climate change may have found an unexpected ally in an ancient and powerful organism: fungi.

Scientists from the University of Sheffield and an international team of researchers have discovered that mycorrhizal fungi, living in vast underground networks across the globe, store an astounding 36% of the world’s annual air pollution underground. This revelation suggests that fungi could hold the key to addressing some of the planet’s most pressing environmental challenges.

Mycorrhizal fungi form a mutually beneficial relationship with plants, where the plants convert air pollution into sugars and the fungi, entwined with the plants’ roots, feed on these sugars, providing vital nutrients in return. This underground symbiotic process, which has existed for at least 450 million years, plays a crucial role in not only storing carbon but also supporting global biodiversity.

The researchers’ meta-analysis of hundreds of studies, published in Current Biology, estimates that these fungi transfer a staggering 13.12 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from plants to the soil annually. This vast carbon pool accounts for approximately 36% of the world’s yearly global fossil fuel emissions—equivalent to the emissions of China, one of the largest contributors to atmospheric pollution. The magnitude of this carbon storage capacity highlights the need to recognize and protect these underground networks.

As the world grapples with the challenges of climate change and strives to achieve net-zero emissions, scientists are calling for fungi to be given greater consideration in conservation and biodiversity policies. Unfortunately, human activities such as agriculture and development pose a significant threat to soil ecosystems. The United Nations warns that if current rates continue, 90% of soils could be degraded by 2050, jeopardizing not only climate change mitigation efforts but also crop productivity.

Professor Katie Field, co-author of the study, emphasizes the urgent need to protect these underground networks.

“Soil ecosystems are being destroyed at an alarming rate through agriculture, development, and other industries, but the wider impacts of the disruption of soil communities are poorly understood. When we disrupt the ancient life support systems in the soil, we sabotage our efforts to limit global heating and undermine the ecosystems on which we depend.”

Further research is underway to understand the longevity of carbon storage by fungi in the soil and explore their broader role in Earth’s ecosystems. The University of Sheffield’s School of Biosciences is leading projects investigating mycorrhizal fungi’s contribution to soil carbon and nutrient cycles, particularly under future climate conditions.

In conclusion, the remarkable ability of fungi to sequester carbon and combat air pollution offers a natural and readily available solution to the world’s environmental woes. By recognizing the importance of these underground networks and implementing measures to conserve soil ecosystems, humanity can harness the power of fungi and work toward a healthier planet and a sustainable future.