Fungi may be a large key to understanding what can be done about the climate change we are already facing, according to researchers working on a massive project to map the fungal networks of the world.

When most of us hear fungus or fungi, we think of mushrooms. But those are only the reproductive organs of usually vast underground networks of web-like organisms. They can span miles – it’s estimated that one of the largest living organisms in the world is an expansive fungal network in eastern Oregon that covers nearly four square miles, eats pine trees, and may be as old as 8,000 years.

Announced on Tuesday, scientists from several universities across the United States and Europe are embarking on a program to find more of these immense fungal networks. They intend to take over 10,000 samples of ground-dwelling fungus, all over the world, to try to map out where the giants are hiding.

And where they were hiding, but are now gone.

“Fungi are invisible ecosystem engineers, and their loss has gone largely unnoticed by the public,” said Toby Kiers, professor of evolutionary biology at Amsterdam’s Free University. Kiers co-founded the non-profit Society for the Protection of Underground Networks, which is helming the entire study.

It will be the first comprehensive study into how climate change is effecting fungal networks, and how they are adapting to changes in their climates. Fungal networks can be formative to the landscapes that grow above them – they have been known to transport nutrients from good soil to poor, to encourage one species of tree to grow more than others, and to sequester atmospheric carbon in their immense carpets of mycelia.

The project is supported by a $3.5 million donation from the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust, which donates to projects meant to protect world agriculture and food security.

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