Humans are experts in their misguided attempts to clean up the environment. Such is the case with our misunderstanding of the importance of decomposition. I wish to help reframe the benefits of fungi with a “Let it Rot” campaign. Rather than removing or chipping a fallen tree, or branches, leave them on your property and allow them to decompose to support fungal biodiversity. Alternatively, inoculate the fallen wood with gourmet mushrooms (see more about this subject here) and see how new delicacies can bloom with a little help from nature’s recyclers.
While sinister actors like root rot, rust mold, and blight make the news headlines, the truth is that fungi form an essential underpinning of the natural world. Carbon cycling; soil formation; nutrient mineralization and utilization; protection from pathogens and herbivores; and control of plant and insect populations are only a few of the roles that fungi fulfill in the environment.
The saprophytic or wood-decomposing fungi help drive the global carbon cycle by making the carbon stored in wood available to build soils, microbial communities, and ultimately nourish plants. The “white rot” fungi (such as Oyster mushrooms) break down the lignin in wood and the “brown rot” fungi (such as Chicken of the Woods) break down the cellulose. As these fungi dine, their extracellular digestive systems leak some of the nutrients into their surrounding environment. These liberated nutrients that escape digestion by the fungi become “mineralized” in the soil and help form the base of the terrestrial food web.
The mycorrhizal species—including some favorite edible mushrooms like Chanterelles and Porcini mushrooms—critically aid the growth of their plant symbionts by scavenging and translocating mineral nutrients such as phosphate. Throughout the process they colonize the roots of the plants and alter the microbial community in the rhizosphere (root zone) to help protect their plant host from pathogens. Acids and digestive enzymes secreted by mycorrhizal fungi (as well as saprophytic species and lichens) can even break down rocks to further liberate minerals and micronutrients. The increased growth of the plant improves crop yields, soil aggregation, and carbon immobilization, to name just a few of the benefits.
Endophytic fungi are a fascinating group that live within and between the vascular cells of plants in a mutualistic relationship. Researchers are now discovering them within nearly every plant that has been studied. These hidden fungi are known to increase drought tolerance and reduce predation by herbivores, among other yet-to-be discovered benefits to their host plants.
So, the take-home message here is: Let It Rot! While there are certainly legitimate concerns about the rise of fungal pathogens, cankers, and blights amidst a warming planet, there is no reason to let them blind us to the wonders of the fungal fabric that builds and binds our biosphere. Explore, study, and cultivate the fungi in your life and see nature rebound in a joyous chorus with fungi leading the way!
To our planet,