The Carbon Exchange

A unique five-year experiment has shown that tall healthy trees share carbon with trees of different species.

Underneath the soil a vast network of fungi and fine plant roots grow together. This ‘mycorrhizal’ network allows the exchange of nutrients and water between plants.

This new research1 shows that the network also transfers carbon between plants – even between different species of plant. This incredible skill may play an important role in the survival of forests as they come under stress from climate change.


Scientists have long considered mycorrhiza networks to be an integral part of forest ecosystems. This experiment looked at a temperate forest in Switzerland. The researchers flooded the air around the tops of Spruce trees with Carbon-13, which is heavier than the carbon found in normal air. Since it’s distinguishable from the carbon usually found in trees, the Carbon-13 could be tracked as it was photosynthesized in the leaves and transported into the twigs, trunks, and roots.

But the transfer didn’t stop there. The mycorrhizal network transferring carbon to other species including neighbouring pines, birch, and larch trees. In essence, the trees in the forest, without discriminating between species, were sharing surplus carbon between them.

This cooperation between species could make forests better at coping with climate change. Just another reason to keep trees standing.

“It’s a shift in how we look at trees in a forest. Neighboring trees can actually share fixed carbon and not solely compete with each other.” Dr. Tamir Klein of the University of Basel

IMG_2441 Alicia Fox Photography

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  1. Source: Klein, T., Siegwolf, R. T., & Körner, C. (2016). Belowground carbon trade among tall trees in a temperate forest. Science,352(6283), 342-344


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