Study finds fungi, not plant matter, responsible for most carbon sequestration in northern forests

Study finds fungi, not plant matter, responsible for most carbon sequestration in northern forests
The study system consists of 30 islands of different sizes in the two large lakes, Lake Uddjaure and Lake Hornavan, near Arjeplog in northern Sweden. Credit: Karina Clemmensen

( —A new study undertaken by a diverse group of scientists in Sweden has found that contrary to popular belief, most of the carbon that is sequestered in northern boreal forests comes about due to fungi that live on and in tree roots, rather than via dead needles, moss and leaf matter. In their paper published in the journal Science, the team describes their findings after taking soil samples from 30 islands in two lakes in northern Sweden.

Scientists have known for quite some time that northern forests sequester a lot of carbon—they pull in carbon dioxide after all, and "breath" out oxygen. But what the trees actually do with the carbon has been a matter of debate—most have suggested that it's likely carried to needles and leaves then eventually drops to the forest floor where over time decomposition causes it to leech into the soil. If that were the case, this new team of researchers reasoned, then the newest should appear closest to the surface of the . But this is not what they found—instead they discovered that newer deposits were more likely to be found at deeper levels in the soil. This was because, they learned, the trees were carrying much of the carbon they pulled in down to their roots (via sugars) where it was being sequestered by a type of fungi (ectomycorrhizal, aka ) that eats the sugars and expels the residue into the soil.

Study finds fungi, not plant matter, responsible for most carbon sequestration in northern forests
Cortinarius armillatus forms mycorrhizal symbiosis with roots of birch trees. Credit: Karina Clemmensen

In their study they found that 47 percent of found on large island samples came about due to fungi, as did a whopping 70 percent of carbon in small island . Thus far, the team is only able to guess why there are such differences in the soils, but theorize it's likely due to differences in decomposition rates.

The amount of carbon stored in northern forests and how, is important because such trees cover approximately 11 percent of the Earth's surface and recent research has calculated that they hold approximately 16 percent of all worldwide sequestered carbon. And that's important, of course, because as global warming occurs, more sequestered carbon is released due to faster decomposition rates of dead forest matter. What's still not clear, however, is whether an increase in new forest growth due to warmer temperatures in more northern areas is likely to offset the increase in release of the sequestered carbon.

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More information: Roots and Associated Fungi Drive Long-Term Carbon Sequestration in Boreal Forest, Science 29 March 2013: Vol. 339 no. 6127 pp. 1615-1618 DOI: 10.1126/science.1231923

Boreal forest soils function as a terrestrial net sink in the global carbon cycle. The prevailing dogma has focused on aboveground plant litter as a principal source of soil organic matter. Using 14C bomb-carbon modeling, we show that 50 to 70% of stored carbon in a chronosequence of boreal forested islands derives from roots and root-associated microorganisms. Fungal biomarkers indicate impaired degradation and preservation of fungal residues in late successional forests. Furthermore, 454 pyrosequencing of molecular barcodes, in conjunction with stable isotope analyses, highlights root-associated fungi as important regulators of ecosystem carbon dynamics. Our results suggest an alternative mechanism for the accumulation of organic matter in boreal forests during succession in the long-term absence of disturbance.

Journal information: Science , Carbon

© 2013

Citation: Study finds fungi, not plant matter, responsible for most carbon sequestration in northern forests (2013, March 29) retrieved 23 October 2019 from
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Mar 29, 2013
So the big dream here is to genetically engineer trees that store stupid amounts of sugars in their roots a genetically engineered fungus that is really really hungry.

-- 5 years later --

With the Earth approaching all time lows in CO2 in the atmosphere, it is noticed that levels are still dropping while deforestation is at an all time high. The recent effort to harvest more trees is spurred by the a new issue that is killing woodlands hundreds of acres a day. It seems a new fungal infection is stripping trees of sugars and they are unable to recover.

-- 15 yrs later

With total collapse of the woodlands emminent it seems the CO2 levels have reversed trend and are raising sharply to 2014 levels.

-- 30 years later

"I for one welcome our new fish overlords"

Mar 29, 2013
This is not going to go over well with the Political Class of posters on this website. All we're about to start reading from them is how all this became "settled science" years ago & science studies & research like this is simply diversionary from their cherished "settled science".

Science is not "static" subject matter, it is constantly evolving to provide us with increasingly better knowledge & standards by which to conduct our personal lives & improve our habitat. Good job to the researchers who understand it is more useful to pass on knowledge such as this, rather than genufleck to the "political class" and their archaic religious practices which never in the history of mankind has ever resulted in a better quality of living wherever they dominate the debate.

Mar 29, 2013
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Apr 01, 2013
no sense of humor these people

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