Toby Kiers
Author: SPUN
2024

Toby Kiers

Evolutionary Biologist & Underground Astronaut

lessons from fungi

meet toby

Dr. Toby Kiers (USA) is a Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam and the Executive Director of the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN) – an organization founded to map and protect the Earth’s underground fungal networks. Kiers’ research borrows tools from economics, physics, and evolution to study how fungi coordinate the movement and transfer of nutrients across complex networks. She is part of a growing global team sampling the Earth’s belowground ecosystems for fungal biodiversity. Kiers was named on the TIME100 next list of emerging leaders for her work decoding fungal trade, awarded a Spinoza prize, known as the Dutch Nobel Prize, the E.O. Wilson Award for Natural History, an Ammodo Award for “unfettered science” and named as an ‘Innovator to Watch’ by Smithsonian Magazine. You can view more of SPUN’s work on our website here.

lessons from fungi
Nominated by: Milbry Polk, MED' 95
Class of 2024 Location USA
Follow toby's work:

For decades, scientists have been documenting the importance of underground fungal systems for ecosystem heath and carbon cycling. But because they are invisible, policymakers have failed to incorporate fungi in climate and biodiversity agendas. This is a mistake. So I am helping catalyze a global network of scientists and local communities to map the fungi of underground ecosystems. We founded the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks with the mission to map the Earth’s mycorrhizal networks and advocate for their protection. Mycorrhizal fungi are a class of soil fungi that form underground partnerships with 90% of all plant species.

You can think of Fungi as the coral reefs of the soil. Mycorrhizal fungi help regulate Earth’s climate and ecosystems by forming underground networks that are fueled by plant carbon. As a result of the partnership, mycorrhizal fungi help draw down 13 billion tons of CO2 per year, that’s 1/3 of all fossil fuel related emissions. We are working communities and scientists across some of the most unsampled underground ecosystems on earth to create high-resolution datasets of belowground fungal biodiversity. This is exciting because it taps into local, widely distributed expertise to achieve global scale, and includes researchers from Armenia, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Pakistan, Panama, Zambia, and many more. Our hope is that these data will help accelerate new nature-based solutions and guide decision making in global conservation and climate arenas. By connecting networks of underground explorers, we can start to provide data on mycorrhizal networks that chart a new course for climate mitigation, restoration, conservation, and regenerative agriculture.

“I am helping catalyze a global network of scientists and local communities to map the fungi of underground ecosystems.”

- Toby Kiers

When we think of exploration, we tend to think of what is aboveground. Yet, underground ecosystems are the least understood, most complex habitats on Earth – home to an estimated 59% of all species. The lives and distributions of these organisms are largely undocumented. Our aim is to expand the definition of exploration to the soil – and build a NASA for the underground. My work does this by connecting discovery across scales – from studying the structure and flows of fungi at the micron-scale to working with local collaborators around the world to sample in some of the most underexplored ecosystems on Earth. When you are in the field, your senses come alive: seeing, smelling, hearing – always looking for clues. But in the lab, we have a super-power: with our high-resolution imaging devices, we are finally able to see the unseen. I am tuned everyday by what we are discovering. Fungi don’t give up their secrets easily, but with enough patience, they reveal an almost surreal world.

 

Labs are magical places, they force you to distill your big ideas into elegant testable hypotheses. It’s here where you start to make connections that you have never made before. You can actually see how the fungi are providing a scaffolding that stitches the Earth’s ecosystems together. At first, it’s hard to imagine something so small being so powerful. But these fungi lie at the base of life on Earth: plants lived for millions of years with only fungi as their root systems. Yet, despite their importance, 99.99% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface remains underexplored for mycorrhizal fungal biodiversity. Mycorrhizal networks are a powerful ally to help draw down carbon, increase agricultural productivity, and protect biodiversity, but they remain vastly understudied. Because there is a wealth of knowledge and local expertise in important zones of undocumented fungal biodiversity, we are trying to co-create research platforms with local communities and adopt new systems of decentralized science. These approaches can help the world expand the definition of exploration.

never stop exploring

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE CLASS OF 2024

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