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Good Reads  Mycology

Entangled Life How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures

Nature Writing
By: Merlin Sheldrake(Author), Colin Elder(Illustrator)
374 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations; b/w illustrations
Publisher: Vintage
NHBS
Winner of the 2021 Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation. The Sunday Times Bestseller. Without stepping off the edge of reason, the beautifully written Entangled Life is a truly mind-altering and perspective-shifting book on fungi. Read our Q&A with Merlin Sheldrake
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  • Entangled Life ISBN: 9781784708276 Paperback Sep 2021 In stock
    £10.99
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  • Entangled Life ISBN: 9781847925190 Hardback Sep 2020 Out of Print #248534
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Neither plant nor animal, it is found throughout the earth, the air and our bodies. It can be microscopic, yet also accounts for the largest organism ever recorded – covering ten square kilometres, weighing 35,000 tons and estimated to be over 2,000 years old. Its ability to digest rock enabled the first life on land, and for 40 million years its towering structures dominated earth's landscape. It can survive unprotected in space, and thrives amidst nuclear radiation.

It can solve problems without a brain, stretching traditional definitions of 'intelligence', and can manipulate animal behaviour in astonishing and often unsettling ways that we struggle to explain. The discovery that it connects plants in large collaborative networks, the 'Wood Wide Web', is transforming our understanding of how non-animal life works. In giving humans bread, alcohol and life-saving medicines, it has changed our species' history, while its ability to digest plastic, explosives, pesticides and crude oil is being harnessed in break-through technologies. Its psychedelic properties, which have shaped cultures since antiquity, have recently been shown to alleviate a number of mental illnesses. And yet most of its millions of species remain undocumented.

In this mind-altering adventure, Merlin Sheldrake introduces the spectacular and neglected world of fungi: endlessly surprising organisms that have made our world, and continue to shape our futures.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Mind-altering and beautifully written
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 2 Oct 2020 Written for Hardback


    One objection sometimes raised against the search for extraterrestrial life is that our planet is rich with bizarre life forms that we still poorly understand. As a biologist, you are usually so close to the subject that you sometimes forget just how otherwordly our home planet can be. With his beautifully written book Entangled Life, biologist Merlin Sheldrake shook me out of that daze by offering a truly mind-opening book on fungi. Excitingly, he does so without floating off into speculative or esoteric territory.

    Say "fungus" and most people will think of mushrooms. However, they are only the above-ground fruiting bodies that serve to disperse fungal spores. Most of what a fungus does happens underground. Here, they form mycelium: networks of fine, tubular cells called hyphae. Leave it to Sheldrake to dissolve boundaries and make you rethink everything you thought you knew about living organisms. Mycelium is "better not thought of as a thing, but as a process – an exploratory, irregular tendency" (p. 7), as "a body without a body plan" (p. 55), writes Sheldrake. Mycelial fungi are maze dwellers, probing the underground world in search of resources. Hyphae can branch and fuse, exploring in all directions simultaneously. These amorphous, shape-shifting entities have no fixed shape. Like water, "mycelium decants itself into its surroundings" (p. 58).

    And while there is no "brain", no centre of control, mycelium somehow communicates information through its network. When it finds something to digest, hyphae leading there grow more numerous, while those leading nowhere are pruned. Mycelium communicates this information across its network with surprising rapidity, though how is still open for debate. Pressure changes as in a hydraulic network? Volatile chemicals? A likely candidate that Sheldrake highlights are electrical impulses.

    Really questioning the concept of identity are lichens, the symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an alga. Taxonomists have long struggled to make sense of this inter-kingdom collaboration where an organism is made up of two separate lineages. Lynn Margulis turned to them to support her idea of endosymbiosis. But look harder and things become weirder. Recent discoveries show that lichen groups consist of stable partnerships involving a third or even fourth fungal partner. And their identities differ between different lichen groups. It seems that a broad range of different fungal and algal players can come together to form lichens, making them "dynamic systems, rather than a catalogue of interacting components". One scientist quoted here points out how this leads to the absurdity of "an entire discipline that can’t define what it is that they study" (p. 101).

    Fungi shape both the deep past and the present. They played an important role in plant evolution, providing root systems for algae conquering the land 50 million years before plants evolved roots. Today, over 90% of plants still depend on these so-called mycorrhizal fungi. Fungi also have many practical applications, from yeasts providing us bread and beer to mycoremediation (cleaning up waste with fungi) and new building materials. Sheldrake pays particular attention to the efforts of mycological maverick Paul Stamets to save the world one mushroom at a time, and the loose collective of DIY-mycologist that has sprung up around Peter McCoy’s organisation Radical Mycology.

    I admit that I was initially worried that this book might veer into very speculative and spiritual territory. One of my concerns was the question "like father, like son"? After all, Merlin’s father Rupert Sheldrake is both a biologist and parapsychologist who formulated the concept of morphic resonance* – an idea that lacks both empirical support and widespread acceptance. Add to this the topic of psychedelic mushrooms and you have the ingredients for a potent new age brew. Instead, there are two chapters in particular where Sheldrake Jr. shows how to open minds without stepping off the edge of reason.

    First, when discussing psychedelic mushrooms and his own experiences taking LSD in the setting of a clinical drug testing unit, he draws parallels to Ophiocordyceps fungi, popularly known as zombie fungi, that take control of insect minds. Though he acknowledges that the powerful and transformative hallucinations induced by psilocybin-containing mushrooms can literally, as Michael Pollan put it, change your mind, he does not confuse them with reality. Rather, they confirm the idea that "our subjective worlds are underpinned by the chemical activity of our brain" (p. 121).

    Second, he is surprisingly critical of the relatively novel idea of the "Wood Wide Web". This is the finding that mycorrhizal fungi connect different plants, even different plant species, with each other via their mycelial networks. The popular press has run with the idea of trees talking to each other, helped along by the success of books such as Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, but Sheldrake takes a far more balanced and sobering view, shying away from sweeping extrapolations. First, he points out how plant-centric this metaphor is and considers the fungal point of view. Second, mycorrhizal networks are not all about "sharing and caring", their behaviour is far more ambiguous than that. Our metaphors are fraught, argues Sheldrake, before asking: "Are we able to stand back, look at the system, and let the polyphonic swarms of plants and fungi and bacteria [...] be themselves, and quite unlike anything else?" (p. 193)

    Not only is the science fascinating and Sheldrake’s ideas and musings perspective-shifting, he is also a first-class wordsmith who has crafted a beautiful book with Entangled Life. When diving into the pungent underground world of truffle hunting, he writes: "truffles provide a depiction of animal tastes – an evolutionary portrait-in-scent of animal fascination" (p. 28). On the question of how mycelium should distribute itself when growing: "How do fungi juggle this kind of trade-off while exploring a crowded rot-scape in search of food?" (p. 54). Extensive footnotes, sometimes running half a page, add much interesting detail, while tasteful drawings made with ink from shaggy ink cap mushrooms give the book a certain cachet.

    In comparison, other popular books on fungi feel like taking a look in from the outside. Somehow, Sheldrake has the uncanny ability to speak as if directly relaying messages from the mycelium. Entangled Life is a gem of a book that mixes scientific astuteness with remarkably entrancing writing.

    *a sort of collective memory in nature that would allow for telepathy-type interconnections between organisms
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Biography

Merlin Sheldrake is a fungal biologist and a writer. He received a PhD in Tropical Ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama, based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. In 2016, he was profiled in the New Yorker by Robert Macfarlane for an article about the Wood Wide Web. He is a musician and keen fermenter. Entangled Life is his first book.

Nature Writing
By: Merlin Sheldrake(Author), Colin Elder(Illustrator)
374 pages, 16 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations; b/w illustrations
Publisher: Vintage
NHBS
Winner of the 2021 Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation. The Sunday Times Bestseller. Without stepping off the edge of reason, the beautifully written Entangled Life is a truly mind-altering and perspective-shifting book on fungi. Read our Q&A with Merlin Sheldrake
Media reviews

Sunday Times bestseller
New York Times bestseller
– 2021 Royal Society Science Book Prize Winner
– Wainwright Prize Winner
– BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week
– British Book Awards Shortlist
– Rathbones Folio Prize Longlist
– Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist
– Nautilus Book Awards Grand Award Winner
– Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries Literature Award Winner
– Guild of Food Writers First Book Award Winner
– Richard Jeffries Society Literary Prize Shortlist
– André Simon Award Longlist
The Times audiobook of the year in the category of 'authors voicing their own work'
–  A best book of 2020 as chosen by BBC Science Focus, The Daily Mail, Geographical, Science Friday, TIME magazine, The Times, The Telegraph, Andrew Marr, Sigrid Rausing, Andrew Motion, Tyler Cowen, and Charles Foster, among others.

"[...] This is Sheldrake’s first book, and, while his expertise means that the readers should feel that they are in safe hands from the off, in truth the experience is more like being whisked down a burrow by a white rabbit, or on a tour of Willy Wonka’s research facility: a trippy, astonishing, and completely exhilarating ride. Wonders come thick and fast. [...] Again and again we glimpse vistas of wonder that border on pseudoscience, and every time we are pulled back on to more empirical rails, wide-eyed and breathless, experiencing a kind of biological vertigo where not only humankind, but all of animal-kind is ancillary to the big picture. These insights and questions are backed up with 80 pages of notes and references, making the book a feat of collation and synthesis as well as a masterpiece of exposition and enlightenment – all  the more extraordinary given that Sheldrake has just turned 33. I lost count of the times I exclaimed out loud, drew and puffed a long breath, reread passages to make sure that I was not imagining too much. Once I got up and danced. This book is likely to change the way you see everything, without having to eat a single magic ‘shroom. Go on, it cannot hurt to try a little bite."
– Amy-Jane Beer, British Wildlife volume 32(2), November 2012

"Wondrous [...] [A] marvelous tour of these diverse and extraordinary life forms [...] eye-opening [...] humans should consider fungi among the greatest of earth's marvels."
Time Magazine, 100 Must-Read Books of 2020

"A dazzling, vibrant, vision-changing book. Sentence after sentence stopped me short. I ended it wonderstruck at the fungal world – the secrets of which modern science is only now beginning to fathom – and the earth-shaking, hierarchy-breaking implications of Sheldrake's argument. A remarkable work by a remarkable writer"
– Robert MacFarlane, author of Underland

"I fell in love with this book. Merlin is a scientist with the imagination of a poet and a beautiful writer [...] This is a book that, by virtue of the power of its writing, shifts your sense of the human [...] It will inspire a generation to enter mycology"
– Michael Pollan (Bay Area Book Festival, 2020)

"Entangled Life is gorgeous! Enjoying it very much! Despair of the future of life on earth? Never mind, there will be fungus among us. One way or another."
– Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale (on Twitter)

"This book is like one surprise after another."
– David Byrne, Rolling Stone

"Entangled Life is a special book and Merlin is, as his name suggests, a magical writer. Through his writing I feel connected to nature through a thousand invisible threads."
– Russell Brand

"Not just for mushroom heads [...] science at its most uplifting."
– Jeanette Winterson, The Times

"Few books blew my mind like Entangled Life. The research, passion, writing, insights [...] Not sure if I've ever learned so much from ONE book. Here is to another scientist who celebrates imagination. Essential reading. Go and get swept up in a new world."
– Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt

"One of those rare books that can truly change the way you see the world around you, Entangled Life is a mercurial, revelatory, impassioned, urgent, astounding, and necessary read. It's fearless in scope, analytically astute, and brimming with infectious joy"
– Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk

"Reading this book, I felt surrounded by a web of wonder. The natural world is more fantastic than any fantasy, so long as you have the means to perceive it. This book provides the means."
– Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not A Gadget

"True to his name, Merlin takes us on a magical journey deep into the roots of Nature – the mycelial universe that exists under every footstep we take in life. Merlin is an expert storyteller, weaving the tale of our co-evolution with fungi into a scientific adventure. Entangled Life is a must read."
– Paul Stamets, author of Mycelium Running

"Astonishing [...] ground-breaking [...] it's impossible to finish this book without feeling awestruck."
– Andrew Motion, Times Literary Supplement Books of the Year 2021

"Fungi are everywhere, and Merlin Sheldrake is an ideal guide to their mysteries. He's passionate, deeply knowledgeable, and a wonderful writer."
– Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction

"Sheldrake's charm and curiosity make for a book that is delightful to read, but also grand and dizzying in how thoroughly it recalibrates our understanding of the natural world, and the often-overlooked organisms within it."
– Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes

"Wondrous [...] an astonishing book that could alter our perceptions of fungi for ever. It seems somehow to tip the natural world upside down."
– Rachel Cooke, The Observer

"[An] ebullient and ambitious exploration [...] Within 24 hours of finishing Entangled Life I had ordered an oyster mushroom-growing kit. I started scrutinizing the lichens that hug the damp concrete in the yard. This book may not be a psychedelic – and unlike Sheldrake, I haven't dared to consume my copy (yet) – but reading it left me not just moved but altered, eager to disseminate its message of what fungi can do."
– Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

"Entangled Life is a gorgeous book of literary nature writing [...] ripe with insight and erudition [...] food for the soul."
– Eugenia Bone, The Wall Street Journal

"Brilliant [...] entrancing [...] when we look closely [at fungi], we meet large, unsettling questions [...] Sheldrake [...] carries us easily into these questions with ebullience and precision [...] challenging some of our deepest assumptions [...] A 'door-opener' book is one with a specialist subject in which it finds pathways leading everywhere [...] Sheldrake's book is a very fine example."
– Richard Kerridge, The Guardian

*FIVE STARS* "Mind-boggling [...] [Sheldrake] is nothing if not a participatory researcher into his subject and one with a winning sense of humour [...] it might be a good time to give thanks for this humble lifeform's effect on our lives. It's tempting [...] to see fungi as the biological model for a better world."
– Steven Poole, The Telegraph

"Playful, strange, intensely philosophical [...] [Sheldrake's] central vision of the interconnectedness of all life-forms feels shiveringly prescient."
– Susannah Goldsbrough, The Telegraph

"Reads like an adventure story [...] wondrous [...] beguilingly weaves together lived experience and scientific research."
– John Carey, The Sunday Times

"This book [...] has a perfect reader in its author [...] who has a precise, slightly husky voice and an allusive, almost poetic cast of mind. His personal involvement in his tour of the magical mystery of mushrooms is made evident in his thoughtful, amused narration."
– Christina Hardyment, The Times, best audiobook of 2020 in category of 'authors voicing their own work'

*FIVE STARS* "After this book, nothing will seem the same again [...] beautifully written and illustrated [...] dazzling [...] reveals a world that's both more extraordinary and more delicate than could be imagined."
The Mail on Sunday

"A captivating trip into the weird and wonderful mycorrhizal world around us – and inside us [...] full of startling revelations, detailed science and just enough eccentric humour to make it digestible. A joy."
The Daily Mail

"The lives of fungi alone are fascinating, but the questions and wider implications that Sheldrake teases out from them are often truly astounding [...] an engrossing, captivating journey [...] rigorous, comprehensive, perspective-altering [...] if this book is any indication, [Sheldrake] has an exciting career in not only science but also literature ahead of him."
– Tom Lathan, The Spectator

"Sheldrake is most interested in fungi's other wonders – specifically, how they challenge our understanding of nonhuman intelligence and stretch the notion of biological individuality [...] after spending long enough in the atmosphere of Sheldrake's sporulating mind, I began to adopt the fungal perspective. I can't help now but see something like a mind wherever there might be fungal threads – which is to say everywhere."
– Zoë Schlanger, New York Review of Books

"A sensory as well as an intellectual pleasure [...] Accomplished, riveting and surprising at every turn [...] We owe a great debt to Sheldrake for lifting his eyes from the microscope for long enough to enlighten us about the wonders of fungi."
– Tim Flannery, New Statesman

"In non-fiction [of 2020], I found the oddest and most uplifting book to be Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. It is, to say the least, rare to find such a vast area of life on Earth – fungi – about which one knows almost nothing, and which gives promise of being so important to human life during our next century."
– Andrew Marr, New Statesman

"Deeply engaging and constantly surprising [...] The magic of mushrooms is not merely mind-expanding [...] it might expand the very concept of mind [...] balanced, well-informed [...] beautifully written."
– Philip Ball, Prospect Magazine

"Sheldrake's research is bang up-to-date [...] In Entangled Life, he adroitly explores the wonders of this hidden fungal realm [...] Sheldrake explains the latest discoveries with aplomb."
– Richard Fortey, Times Literary Supplement

"Nearly every page of this book contained either an observation so interesting or a turn of phrase so lovely that I was moved to slow down, stop, and reread [...] This book rocked me into remembering that nature, especially fungal nature, is big and encompassing and creative and destructive. It reminded me that fungi are, like the Universe, sublime."
– Rob Dunn, Science

"[Sheldrake's] rich text evokes an understanding of what it would actually be like to be a filamentous microbe [...] magical [...] comprehensive and scholarly [...] accessible and fun [...] an extraordinary achievement."
– Nicholas Talbot, Nature Plants

"A poetic, mind-bending tour of the fungal world."
– Gareth Cook, Scientific American

"An exuberant introduction to the biology, ecology, climatology, and psychopharmacology of the earth's 'metabolic wizards.'"
Harper's Magazine

"Stylistically impressive [...] Sometimes the scene itself shines with poetry."
– Joanna Steinhardt, LA Review Of Books

"You may never look at fungi in the same way [...] Entangled Life is an eye-opening exploration of this mysterious taxonomic kingdom [...] a journey into an untapped world. It is both a wonderful collection of fungal feats [...] and a personal account of Sheldrake's experiences with these miraculous organisms."
New Scientist

"Expands our conception of the living world [...] laced with intriguing details."
The Financial Times

"Expertly explained and easy to read [...] gorgeous, intelligent, utterly absorbing [...] In what can sometimes feel like an oversaturated market for nature writing, Sheldrake's book stands apart, and does what all the best books do: it expands our world, and makes us look up from the page with renewed wonder."
– Sean Hewitt, The Irish Times

"[Sheldrake] has a talent for threading broad perspectives into a highly lucid prose [...] manages to cover almost all the immense scientific and conceptual territories involved [...] while keeping a light and often humorous touch, even when he is at his most profound."
– Gregory Day, The Sydney Morning Herald

"Unbelievably amazing"
– Tim Flannery, The Sydney Morning Herald

"From bread to booze to the very fiber of life, the world turns on fungus, and Sheldrake provides a top-notch portrait."
Kirkus Reviews (Starred)

"Masterful [...] A superb science book about a ubiquitous yet vastly underappreciated life form."
Booklist (Starred)

"A true masterpiece: a thrilling and fascinating insight into the living world, beautifully written, entertaining, funny and inspiring, while representing the science carefully and responsibly. I hope and trust that it will become an instant classic."
– George Monbiot, author of Feral

"It is impossible to put this book down. Entangled Life provides a window into the mind-boggling biology and fascinating cultures surrounding fungal life. Sheldrake asks us to consider a life-form that is radically alien to ours, yet vibrant and lively underfoot."
– Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries

"Wonderfully written [...] surprising [...] The best science writing invites people to view the world around them in a new way, and Entangled Life is a perfect example."
– Professor Brian Cox

"There's a feeling of wonder about all of Sheldrake's sentences which would disarm the most hardened cynic. Yet he's a very serious scientist. Wonder and scholarship need one another desperately [...] However much we think we have understood, this book will make us realise how much we haven't [...] After reading it you'll think, 'The world is a massively more exciting and colourful and charismatic place than I thought.'"
– Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast

"Excellent"
– Tyler Cowen

"Entangled Life is a revelation. It is a radical, hopeful and important book and I couldn't put it down. With elegance, wit and clarity Sheldrake engages us in the hidden world of fungi, a miraculous web of connections, interactions and communication that changes the way we need to look at life, the planet and ourselves."
– Isabella Tree, author of Wilding

"This engaging book shines light on the hidden fungal connections that link plants, trees, and us. I thought I knew a lot about fungi, but I found much that was new to me, and exciting. Sheldrake is a rare scientist who is not afraid to speculate about the truly profound implications of their work. A very good read."
– Andrew Weil, author of True Food

"Entangled Life is a triumph, and a thing of vast beauty."
– Tom Hodgkinson, The Idler

"I was completely unprepared for Sheldrake's book. It rolled over me like a tsunami, leaving the landscape rearranged but all the more beautiful."
– Nicholas Humphrey, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the London School of Economics, author of Soul Dust

"This book is as hard to put down as a thrilling detective novel, and one of the best works of popular science writing that I have enjoyed in years. Sheldrake has a gift of explaining very complex concepts and serving it all up in such an engaging way that the reader forgets that they are not supposed to understand this stuff."
– Dennis McKenna, author (with Terence McKenna) of Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide

"Entangled Life is a beautiful and profound meditation into the nature of life and intelligence. Thoroughly recommended!"
– Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science, University of Oxford

"Unputdownable, this extraordinary work explores the awesome range of activities of fungi: enabling the first life on land; interacting in countless ways with other life forms; shaping human history and potentially safeguarding our future. At once rigorously scientific and boldly imaginative, it raises fundamental questions about the many natures of life on Earth."
– Nick Jardine, Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

"Sheldrake awakens the reader to a shapeshifting, mind-altering, animate world that not only surrounds us but intimately involves us as well. A joyful exploration of the most overlooked and enigmatic kingdom of life, and one that expanded my appreciation of what it means to be alive."
– Peter Brannen, author of The Ends of the World

"This is an adventurous and indeed daring book, opening several unfamiliar micro-domains in the organic life world and its multiple connections. There is much to be learned in this wide field, and this vivid, scrupulous guide points the way!"
– J. H. Prynne

"A masterpiece of popular science. With this young English biologist, fungi has met perhaps its most useful mammalian fan – a meticulous scientist who can write like Gabriel Garcia Marquez."
– Jenny Nicholls, Stuff

"Entangled Life is a revelation with life-changing consequences. I now realize how distorted my views on fungi have been, having been deeply educated in modern medicine. This book expanded my worldview and I hope it is read widely in the medical profession. We are in dire need of it."
– Larry Dossey, MD, author of One Mind

"Entangled Life is a remarkable piece of work that manages to be at once scholarly and visionary and yet remains deeply engaging and enjoyable. Sheldrake provides a new and penetrating analysis of the fungal kingdom of life that will be a greatly enriching read for all students of the living world."
– Ian Henderson, Professor of Plant Genetics and Epigenetics, University of Cambridge

"After reading Sheldrake's masterpiece I am more convinced than ever that we will never solve the grave problems of our times unless we deeply re-entangle our lives 'fungus-style' into the living fabric of our lustrous planet."
– Dr Stephan Harding, Senior Lecturer in Holistic Science and Deep Ecology, Schumacher College

"Fungi are fascinating! Elegant life strategies meet with delicate omnipresence, driving global ecosystems. Sheldrake's book informs and offers new concepts. Looking through Sheldrake's lens, fungal biology integrates with art, philosophy and human society. His voice is real and personal. His book educates and entertains."
– Uta Paszkowski, Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics, University of Cambridge

"Sheldrake brilliantly weaves a narrative to reframe our understanding of the fabric of life, extending the boundaries of our identity in the process. Entangled Life positively bristles with insight, dry humour and a passionately curious intelligence. This is a landmark achievement with profound implications for how we collectively contribute to shaping a sustainable future for the whole of life on the planet."
– David Lorimer, Programme Director, Scientific and Medical Network

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