"ASTANA, Kazakhstan — A team of scientists loaded into a gray minivan in this capital city earlier this year and drove for hundreds of miles west through the Kazakh steppe — a vast region marked by endless open plains of grass, abandoned farms and flower-filled meadows.
It’s a desolate, semiarid landscape, but just a few inches below the ground may lie one of the most diverse fungi ecosystems on Earth.
Across much of the planet, thin, wildly interconnected filamentous structures — known as “mycelium” — hold the earth together. When these underground fungi come together, they form sophisticated systems known as “mycorrhizal networks.” The Kazakh steppe, which stretches from the north of the Caspian Sea to the Altai Mountains, is one of the largest dry steppes in the world and is predicted to have a wild diversity of mycorrhizal fungi. But as the region becomes increasingly desert-like, many of these fungi may disappear.
“There’s a time limit, 100 percent,” said Justin Stewart, an evolutionary ecologist who led the mapping expedition. “If we collect a sample when it’s already a desert, then we’ve already lost all that diversity.”
The Kazakhstan mission is part of a worldwide project led by the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks, or SPUN, a scientific research organization dedicated to mapping out underground fungi. The goal is to sample soil in 10,000 biodiversity hot spots across the world to create a global picture of what species of fungi exist and where."