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Trees Exchange Carbon Via Tiny Intimately-Bound Creature

Forest trees exchange carbon with each other using a creature intimately connected to them. The surprising new findings are published in Science.


Nature is not selfish; rather, generosity and giving are among its core values. A new study shows how forest trees do not use carbon for themselves only: they will exchange great amounts thereof with neighbouring trees using symbiotic fungi.

Researchers from the University of Basel have revealed this amazing connection existing among trees. Plants are known for their use of carbon in photosynthesis which they take in from the environment in the form of carbon dioxide. The end-product which is sugar is used to supply energy, and it will also be transported to fungi with which the plants have established a symbiotic interaction. The new research shows that this relationship has more depths than previously thought. This is what was found when scientists used atomic mass spectrometry to track the carbon being taken in by trees from a forest near Basel by providing carbon dioxide containing heavy 13C atoms to them.

This labelled carbon was found not only in the specific plants’ roots but also in neighbouring trees (regardless of species) that had not been fed with the marked carbon.

This transaction — the carbon trade — could only have happened through the network of shared mycorrhizal fungi because other trees not connected to this type of fungi did not have the carbon-13.

The researchers explain that their findings challenge the idea of tree individuality pertaining to the one constituent that is tree carbon. They also provide new insight into the roles of mycorrhizal fungi.

“Evidently the forest is more than the sum of its trees,” says author Christian Körner.

If this does not further the concept that nature is more giving by nature, I don’t know what will. Humans surely have one lesson or two to take from it.


One comment

  1. John Cherry on

    I already knew about the relationship between trees and fungi and the description ‘creature’ made me think of an animal.

    But OK, maybe this is how you have to describe something which is alive but neither an animal nor a plant.


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