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Funga Tech Explained: forest fungal microbiome restoration as a natural climate solution

Updated: Jan 19

Funga restores fungal biodiversity to working forest landscapes. In the process, we accelerate tree growth rates, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and combat climate change. While it might seem simple in two sentences, under the hood is decades of research on how the forest fungal microbiome affects the forest carbon cycle. Here we dive into the science of how we do what we do, and why it's important.

What is carbon removal?

Climate change is caused by human emission of heat-trapping, greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that warm up the planet. The biggest culprit is carbon dioxide. In order to stop climate change, we need to stop emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. However, given climate inaction to date, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us ending emissions is now no longer sufficient. In addition to reducing emissions, we also need to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (IPCC ref).

Fortunately, plants, soil, oceans, algae, and almost everything alive on Earth are engaged in the cycles influencing carbon storage. Globally, all plants on land already absorb and remove ~30% of the excess carbon we emit (ref). Put another way, for every 10 tons of carbon that is emitted by burning fossil fuels, only 7 of those tons actually end up in the atmosphere because 3 were captured by plants!

Funga asks, what if we can make the natural process of forest carbon removal more efficient?

Forests are already doing the world a huge favor by absorbing and offsetting a lot of the carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere. Funga asks, what if we can make the natural process of forest carbon removal more efficient? Can we do that by identifying ways to build fungal biodiversity into forest landscapes? How would you ever figure out how to do something like that? Science. Lots and lots of science.

Funga documents fungal biodiversity in hundreds of forests to identify what a healthy forest microbiome looks like.

Our team goes to forests all over the world, takes soil samples, and then extracts and sequences DNA from the soil. DNA sequencing allows us to document the thousands of species of fungi that coexist in just a single forest. We then pair this fungal microbiome information with data on climate, soils and more to understand (1) which forests harbor fungi linked to accelerated tree growth and carbon removal and (2) do those fungi resemble intact, wild communities native to this part of the world?

Funga uses this information to reintroduce fungal biodiversity into working forest landscapes.

Some of the most successful human microbiome therapies are based on fecal transplants. By taking a microbially-rich material, full of beneficial microbiology from a healthy person, you can “inoculate” a sick person with healthy microbes. By doing so, medical microbiologists can treat certain diseases caused by a loss of microbial biodiversity from a person’s body. Funga takes a similar approach to the forest, where we use soil as an inoculant. Soil is where digestion takes place in the forest, and is where many of these beneficial fungi live. Our data analysis tells us which particular forests harbor wild, biodiverse and high performing communities of fungi. We then use this information to identify “donor forests” where we source soil, and use it as an inoculant. This has the potential to be particularly powerful in forestry landscapes where reforestation happens after a major clearcut, as clearcutting is known to decimate belowground, symbiotic fungal biodiversity.

Funga measures additional tree growth and carbon capture.

To have meaningful climate impact, we have to show more carbon is captured than would have in a “business-as-usual” scenario. For our current work, that’s a situation where the forester replanted a forest, but didn’t reintroduce fungal biodiversity. By comparing tree growth and carbon capture with and without fungal restoration, we can measure how much additional carbon was removed as a result of our work. We accomplish this by embedding control plots into all of our projects - areas where we continue to plant business-as-usual trees. This allows us to build an important baseline into every project.

By building big datasets and working with established forestry infrastructure, we’re building fundamentally new ways to restore forest fungal biodiversity and create climate impact. If you’re interested in purchasing carbon removal from Funga please reach out!

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