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Riches under our feet
Fungi have important roles in biotic systems: they degrade materials, they live together with others, they cause disease. Fungi turn organic materials into forms that are usable for themselves and other organisms (organic materials decomposition); they establish and maintain long-lasting relationships with other organisms such as plants and with this support their nutrition and stress-tolerance (e.g. mycorrhizal symbiosis); fungi can cause mild or severe diseases for plants, animals and other fungi (pathogenesis). Via these roles fungi influence directly and indirectly nutrient cycling, be it by competition with others or bringing the food to their plates.
Fungi can also be channels connecting organisms, such as plants, where soil nutrients are moving from place to place. The channels can also be used to move information molecules, such as hormones or warning signals. These channels can also be highways for smaller organisms to move: viruses and bacteria travelling on and in fungal hyphae.
The above basic roles of fungi mean that fungi create habitats. Fungi create soil, healthy soil, where plants and other organisms can dwell. Plant root symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi influence relationships in plant communities and thus shape aboveground ecosystems that are visible to us, humans. When conditions turn complicated, such as during drought or pathogen attack, it is the mycorrhizal fungi who support plant health and immune response.
Taken together, we can simply say: we breathe (oxygen generated thanks to plants grown with mycorrhizal) fungi, we eat (plants grown thanks to mycorrhizal) fungi, we wear (clothing made of plants grown with mycorrhizal) fungi, we live in (buildings made of plants grown with mycorrhizal) fungi. Invisible connections with fungi under our feet are the riches that maintain life.
Maarja Öpik is Professor of Molecular Ecology at the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, University of Tartu, Estonia and director of the same institute. Her research has addressed biodiversity of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, spanning from local to global scales, natural to anthropogenic habitats, dirty field work, clean lab work to bioinformatics and biodiversity databasing. Currently she focuses mostly on fungal diversity and soil health in agricultural systems and peatlands, with looks into greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient cycling. Öpik is also a competing athlete in powerlifting and strongman sports.