Carbon In Our Soils.
There is a global issue with storing carbon in soils. Organic carbon is the main driver of water and nutrient retention and is vital for extensive agricultural systems. Farmers and scientists have spent decades looking for ways to increase levels of stable carbon in soils.
At present we have methods that allow carbon to be incorporated in the soil, but we are yet to establish a sure method to store that carbon long-term, as the carbon cycle readily turns it back out into the atmosphere as CO2.
Developing a method which allows long-term natural storage of carbon in the soils would not only aid global food security through soil health but can offer the world a tool in the fight against climate change.
Storing Carbon, Long Term
Much like ourselves, all plants are inhabited internally by a diverse community of microbiology. Much of this microbiology is a group of bacteria and fungi that exist in a plant without causing the plants any harm (endophytes).
Melanised endophytic fungi (MEF) is one group of endophytes. They are whispy, dark webs of fungi that anchor inside plant roots, and exchange nutrients for carbon in a symbiotic relationship.
It has been found that MEF has the capacity to take the carbon that a plant draws from the air, and store it in complex compounds in the soil. But what is special about MEF is that it stores the carbon in a way that protects it from breaking down and being released back into the atmosphere via the carbon cycle.
MEF places strands of melanin, a carbon-rich organic compound inside tiny soil clumps, away from forces that will degrade it such as oxygen and other microbes, giving it the protection that it needs to last up to thousands of years.
Within the MEF group, scientists have isolated strains that will rapidly store significant amounts of carbon, allowing sequestration to happen much faster than would usually be anticipated.
Why the excitement?
Across the world, there are 530 million farmers taking up half a billion hectares of land.
The isolated strains of MEF are very good at inhabiting cropping plants, meaning the method can be used by farmers across the world.
Applying MEF across farming landscapes is done by seed treatments. This process, which is already a normal practice used by farmers globally, means the application is very low-cost, simple and does not require large-scale government-funded operations.
By using a microorganism for rapid carbon sequestration, we do not experience the huge costs in energy, land or resources that are incurred by carrying out sequestration mechanically.
While the trials of using MEF on farms are in early stages, the results look promising, giving scientists hope that a practical solution for climate change is in our grasp.