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Mushrooms May Improve Soil Quality

By Kathryn Barry Stelljes
May 26, 2000

Fungi known as basidiomycetes--the same group that produces edible mushrooms--may play a key role in maintaining and improving soil quality, Agricultural Research Service scientists found.

In many basidiomycetes, the underground parts of the fungi--known as filaments and hyphae--produce sugary substances that bind soil particles. This binding together, or aggregation, reduces soil compaction and allows roots, oxygen and water to move through the soil.

Mushrooms are typically associated with cool, damp, forested areas where they help to decompose fallen trees. But ARS microbiologist TheCan Caesar found that basidiomycetes are widespread and important components of many types of soils.

However, in open environments, the underground filaments may be plentiful without producing above-ground mushrooms, so their role was not well understood. Basidiomycetes are the second largest group of fungi known to science.

The fungi survive with or without living plants and thrive on straw, or crop residue, left over after harvest. Caesar found greater numbers of the fungi--and better soil--in land that had been cropped without tilling. So in addition to reducing erosion, no-till practices could help improve soil quality by fostering basidiomycete populations.

The presence and number of these fungi may also serve as a good indicator of soil quality.

Caesar works at the ARS Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory in Sidney, Mont. ARS breaks ground on May 27 for a new 21,470-square-foot laboratory to expand on the existing four buildings that cover 24,000 square feet at the site. A new 5,863-square-foot insect quarantine lab will also be built to aid in biological control research.

ARS is the chief research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: TheCan Caesar, ARS Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory, Sidney, Mont., phone (406) 433-9411, fax (406) 433-5038, To obtain a press release about the groundbreaking event, please contact Kathryn Barry Stelljes.