World’s Largest Mushroom Collection May Unlock Mysteries of Carbon Capture

Enlarge / Fungal specimens are seen displayed inside the Fungarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, west London, in 2023. The Fungarium was founded in 1879 and contains approximately 380,000 specimens from the United Kingdom.

It’s hard I miss the headliners at Kew Gardens. London’s botanical collection is home to towering redwoods and giant Amazon water lilies capable of supporting a small child. Every spring, its enormous greenhouses shine with technicolor displays of multiple species of orchids.

But to see the really good things at Kew, you have to look underground. Hidden beneath a laboratory at the east end of the garden is the fungarium: the largest collection of mushrooms in the world. Inside a series of green cardboard boxes are some 1.3 million specimens of fruiting bodies – the parts of mushrooms that appear on the surface and release spores.

“This is basically a fungal library,” says Lee Davies, curator of Kew’s fungarium. “What this allows us to do is create a reference of fungal biodiversity: what fungi are in the world and where they can be found.” Archivists, who for some reason wear bowler hats, float between the shelves, busy digitizing the vast archive, which includes about half of all species known to science.

Fungarium collections manager Lee Davies inspects a mushroom specimen stored at the Fungarium at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, west London, in 2023.
Enlarge / Fungarium collections manager Lee Davies inspects a mushroom specimen stored at the Fungarium at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, west London, in 2023.

In the hierarchy of environmental causes, fungi have traditionally ranked somewhere near the bottom, Davies says. He himself was taken to the fungarium against his will. Davies was working with tropical plants when a staff reorganization brought him to the surroundings of the temperature-controlled fungarium. “I was transferred here in 2014 and it’s amazing. The best I’ve seen, I love it. “It has been a total conversion.”

Davies’s own epiphany reflects a broader awakening of appreciation for these overlooked organisms. In 2020, the book by mycologist Merlin Sheldrake Tangled Life: How Fungi Create Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Future It was a surprise bestseller. In the video game and HBO series. The last of usis a fictional brain-eating fungus of the genus cordyceps that sends the world into an apocalyptic spiral. (Kew’s collection includes a tarantula infected with cordyceps(Fungal tendrils emerge from the soft spaces between the dead insect’s limbs.)

While the rest of the world becomes aware of these fascinating organisms, scientists are becoming familiar with the crucial role they play in ecosystems. In a laboratory just above Kew’s fungarium, mycologist Laura Martínez-Suz studies how fungi help sequester carbon in the soil and why some places seem much better than others for storing soil carbon.

The soil is a huge carbon reserve. There are about 1.5 trillion tonnes of organic carbon stored in soils around the world, about double the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Scientists used to think that most of this carbon entered the soil when dead leaves and plant matter decomposed, but it is now becoming clear that plant roots and fungal networks are a critical part of this process. A study of forested islands in Sweden found that most of the carbon in the forest floor actually came from root and fungal networks, not from fallen plant matter.

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