A new study shows that trees of different species can exchange large amounts of carbon via the fungal internet that connects their roots, via The Atlantic
In 1999, a team of scientists led by Christian Körner did what thousands of people do every Christmas: they wrapped Norway spruce trees in tubes. Except this was in March, not December. And the trees were 40-metre-tall giants in the middle of a Swiss forest, not 2-metre pipsqueaks in a living room. (The team had to use a crane). And the tubes had no lights or baubles on them. Instead, they had a series of tiny holes, which pumped out carbon dioxide.
For years, the team fumigated five of these wild spruces. They wanted to see how trees will cope with the high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide that we’re pumping into the atmosphere. But in the process, and almost by accident, they showed that trees of different species exchange huge amounts of carbon via an internet of fungi—a “wood-wide web” that secretly connects their roots.
When trees photosynthesize, they use the sun’s energy to refashion carbon dioxide and water into sugars. In this way, they assimilate the carbon from the gas into the molecules of their own leaves, trunks, and roots. To study this process, Körner’s team exposed their trees to a special blend of carbon dioxide, depleted in an isotope called carbon-13. These depleted levels acted like a label that the team could use to track the flow of carbon through the trees, from leaf to root, from tip to toe.
When Tamir Klein joined the team in 2012, his job was to see how much of the labeled carbon had made its way from the canopy to the roots. Sure enough, when he dug up the spruces’ roots, he found that they had low levels of carbon-13. But, to his surprise, so did the roots of surrounding trees, including other species like beech, pine, and larch. Somehow, the labelled carbon had not only moved from the canopies of the five spruces to their roots, but also across to unconnected trees.
“Christian was very reluctant to believe any of this. He said: you misidentified the roots,” says Klein. But he hadn’t. He and his colleagues dug up the soil around the trees to ensure that the labelled roots belonged to different individuals. “Sometimes, we even tasted the roots to distinguish them. We confirmed that the label really was being transferred.”
It wasn’t moving across the canopy. Klein only found the carbon label in the roots of nearby trees and not their leaves, so the exchanges are happening underground. Roots of neighbouring trees can sometimes graft together, and lab studies have shown that carbon can move along these bridges. But Klein showed that this wasn’t the case for his spruces: they weren’t wired up to their neighbours.
Roots can also release carbon directly into the soil, which can then be absorbed by other roots. But if the spruces were doing that, then Klein should have found labelled carbon in every nearby plant—and he didn’t. There wasn’t any trace of the stuff in understory herbs like dog’s mercury and blackberries. It was, however, abundant in fungi, growing on the roots of the spruces and other trees.
These fungi—the mycorrhiza—are found on the roots of almost all land plants, and provide phosphorus and nitrogen in exchange for carbon-based sugars. They can also colonize several hosts at once, creating a large fungal internet that ferries nutrients and signaling chemicals between neighboring plants (much like the trees of Pandora in James Carmeron’s Avatar).
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