Mushrooms growing in the Burren in Co Clare hold the key to tackling future world food shortages, according to scientists.
Fungal experts have discovered that networks of microscopic fungi play a key role in aiding plants to extract nutrients from the soil. These networks, which have been christened “nature’s internet” have been completely destroyed in much of the world, with the pristine Burren grasslands believed to be Europe’s last large example of an intact, large fungal network.
Dr Ray Woods of Plantlife, a British organisation, the Burren is the fungal “ark” on which the future of European farming could depend.
Recent studies have also shown that these complex fungal networks can help plants to fight off disease and can even allow for the flow of nutrients from one plant to another, even over large distances. A combination of intensive farming, fertiliser and human intrusion have destroyed these networks across much of the world.
“We are just starting to learn how vital these fungi are for growing crops,” said Dr Woods. “They are intimately connecting with plants; for example, we now know that a common plant such as hazel uses 50 or 60 different types of fungi to grow.
“The wild flowers of the Burren are a perfect example of this. There are so many different plants and flowers there and yet none of them ever seem to dominate. In the Burren, you have one of the last unimpacted areas of grassland anywhere in the world. It is really one of the very few places in the world where research into fungal networks can still be done. It is an arc for these fungi.”
Fungal networks help plants to extract nitrogen from the soil. At present, virtually all world agriculture is built on the use of large amounts of industrialised nitrogen fertiliser, which is made using large amounts of oil. As global oil supplies dwindle, finding a replacement fertiliser is considered by many to be the biggest challenge facing the world’s agricultural community over the next 50 years.
This has prompted universities and research institutions to examine the role that the intact Burren fungal networks could have on world agriculture.
“People are already coming to the Burren [to study the fungi] but it is difficult at times to know who is coming and what they are doing,” said Stephen Ward of the Burrenbeo Trust. “You come across people from universities in Germany, Holland, Ireland and the UK in the Burren.
“If they are doing original research then chances are they would contact an organisation like the Burrenbeo Trust because we can be helpful.”
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