Timothy's Blog

A day in the life of a creative filmmaker

From Tree to Shining Tree

May 29th, 2020 by

So I ran across this podcast at the recommendation of my chemistry teacher at EvCC and thought you might want to give it a listen. It’s about the network of fungi that live in the ground underneath trees and form a communication network with the trees. The purpose of this network is to transfer and exchange nutrients but performs other functions and is really amazing to hear about!

The woman who discovered this network is Suzanne Simard and her story is actually pretty interesting. She was a forester in western Canada and was tasked with watching trees that had been planted to reclaim forests and monitor how they were doing. She noticed something funny going on.

[if a nearby birch tree was removed] The Douglas fir became diseased and, and died. There was some kind of benefit from the birch to the Fir. There was a healthier community when they were mixed, and I wanted to figure out why.

Suzanne Simard

If you removed a nearby tree, you would find that another tree wouldn’t do so well. So she performed an experiment to find out why. She covered some small trees in plastic and injected radioactive gas into some of them and not others. When she came back with a geiger counter later and ran it up the side of the trees, she would find that the other trees had somehow absorbed the radioactive gas that the other trees took in. So it was obvious that something was going on.

So to summarize, she found out something that scientists had suspected for a long time but didn’t know for sure, that trees cohabitate and exchange nutrients with each other through this network of mycelium which allows them to also store nutrients (sugar) during hard times and retrieve it when its time to grow.

( Photo Credit: Flickred! / Flickr )

Additionally, the fungi and tree roots actually communicate with each other using chemical signals, according to the podcast. The fungi rely on the trees to produce sugar which they can do using photosynthesis, and the fungi can not. In exchange, the fungi break down minerals in the soil by excreting acids and “mining” the rock particles in the soil and send these minerals back up to the tree. Without the fungi, the trees would not be able to exist.

The trees can also use the network to tell nearby trees when a predator, like some kinds of beetles, are coming so that the trees can excrete nasty tasting chemicals that will repel the beetles.

This network and cohabitation is really amazing! Just goes to show that God made trees just as complicated as he made humans. At least that’s my interpretation.

One last quote:

that all these trees, all these trees that were of totally different species, were sharing their food underground. Like if you put a food into one tree over here, it would end up in another tree, maybe 30 feet away over there. And then a third tree over here. And then a fourth tree over there. And a fifth tree over there. Sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th, all in all turns out one tree was connected to 47 other trees all around it. It was like, it was like a huge network.

Robert Krulwich