The Wood Wide Web

For people living in urban areas a walk in a forest is rejuvenating. Even simply standing or sitting under a tree provides a sense of relaxation and well-being. If you have ever hugged a tree, you will realize it is as comforting as hugging another person! Plant more trees – that is a well-accepted virtue and promoted worldwide.

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What is it about trees that make them so important to human life? We all know that trees give us oxygen from photosynthesis – the basis of our lives. However, now the ‘Wood Wide Web’ that lies beneath and connects trees is emerging as a repository of information about the ecology on earth.

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This connection was first discovered by Suzanne Simard, a Canadian researcher in her 1997 Ph.D. thesis. Research has shown that beneath every forest and wood there is a complex underground web of roots, fungi and bacteria helping to connect trees and plants to one another.

This subterranean social network, nearly 500 million years old, has become known as the “Wood Wide Web”. Created by mycorrhizal fungi that take carbon from the tree roots and share the phosphorus and nitrogen that they have acquired from the soil, by means of enzymes that trees do not possess. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a link between tree and fungus at a cellular level.

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This intricate communication system between trees shares more than just nutrients. Much like the World Wide Web, the ‘Wood Wide Web’ helps the trees to talk to each other and share information. In a forest, a tree attacked by insects would send signals through the web at its roots to other trees around, while a dying tree may transfer its resources to younger trees in the vicinity.Research has shown that trees share resources and information with all species of trees they are connected to!

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So next time you see a forest remember that the trees much like humans are talking to each other – collaborating and offering support.

In 2019, Professor Thomas Crowther and his team of scientists of Switzerland, and Stanford University used machine learning to map out this complex network of fungi and bacteria that links trees together. Covering about 28,000 tree species growing in more than 70 countries, this database will help researchers. With 60% of the 3 trillion trees on earth connected by the fungi web, more information is pouring in than ever before.

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Changes in the kind of fungi that forms part of the network, and their carbon storage capacity is helping scientists understanding not only what is happening as a result of climate change, but also betterpredict what is to come.

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Trees have been venerated across time and cultures for attributes like shade, fruits, wood, ability to hold soil together, and above all purifying the air we breathe. Now, science has gone further to show that the ground beneath our feet is actually a communication network of trees that can tell us a lot about the state of the planet we live in. This is more reason than ever to protect, plant and nurture trees everywhere around us.

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Published in Hindi in the Dainik Bhaskar on 28-10-2021

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