The Wood Wide Web: My Hometown among the Mycelium!
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
Good day my precious little microbes, welcome to Forest Networking 101! I am Ms. Myco Rhiza and I am very excited to show you where I grew up: the Wood Wide Web (I am even named after it)! When we look at the forest, it is easy to focus only on the magnificent trees as they reach up into the sky. We know that they also extend their roots below the ground to gather water and nutrients, but most don't realize that there is a whole network that surrounds the roots, connecting the forest in a complex web that allows for communication between the forest dwellers, a subterranean social network of mycelium and rhizosphere in a unique symbiotic relationship called mycorrhiza! This network communicates to the trees and other organisms the status of the ecosystem around them in real-time! German forester, Peter Wohlleben, dubbed this network the “wood wide web". Let's watch a little video to get us started:
It's easy to see lots of fungi in the woods, many strange and wonderful mushrooms grow where we can see them, but really, these are actually only the fruit of the fungi growing beneath the ground! The body of a fungus is composed by fine and intricately branched threads called hyphae, which form a dense network referred to as mycelium.
Millions of species of fungi and bacteria swap nutrients between the soil and the roots of trees, forming a vast, interconnected web of organisms throughout the woods. This complex network, called the Mycorrhizal Fungi Network, exists in and around the roots of forest plants.
The term mycorrhiza (plural mycorrhizae) refers to the close and long-term (or symbiotic) association between a plant and a fungus present in the plant’s root zone (the rhizosphere). Remember symbiosis? We talked about lichens from our last class!
There are two basic types of fungi that make up the mycorrhizal fungi network, those that exist on and around the roots, ectomycorrhizal fungi (EMF), and those that actually penetrate the roots, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF). The network moves carbon, nutrients, water, and more; running for miles, connecting plants and fungi together in an intricate web. This is a symbiotic network, trees could not survive without the microbes in the soil and vice versa. But that's not all!
Research has even found that there are ‘mother’ trees that use this extensive network to assess the health of their saplings and send nutrients and even knowledge out among the forest! Researchers have also found that a dying tree can use the network to disperse its resources and warn other plants about potential dangers in the environment.
Here's a great Ted Talk that explains why we should care about it (listen carefully, we're going to be hearing more about Mother Trees quite soon, I feel a book report coming soon!) These living fiber networks are critical to the health of the forest and the health of our forests are critical to the health of the Earth and ALL of her inhabitants as we discussed in our Top 10 Threats to our Earth class. Remember class, there's so much more to the forest than the glorious trees, everywhere you look (and everywhere you don't) there are microbes making a difference!