‘Fungi’ are so easily overlooked. But line with much of nature, on closer inspection, they are amazing, all around us, vital for life as we know it and totally unique – officially!
As we reassess our lives, and perhaps reassess the material lens through which we so often prioritise our actions, it’s essential to remember that fungi, like bees, have to be considered if wish to continue with our lifestyles as we know them.
Fungi: a unique group of living organisms
Fungi were originally classified as plants, and as such, were recognised as part of the Plant Kingdom. But following extensive research, in 1969 it was recognised that fungi do not fit into classification as either a plant or an animal.
- Fungi are hugely important in terms of the environment, medicine, and our daily lives. They are also being increasingly utilised, as scientists continue to discover their broad and powerful potential, including solving challenges within agronomy and in biotechnology industries.
- A key distinction from plants is that the latter are ‘rooted’ and can produce their own food, via photosynthesis. Fungi do not contain chlorophyll so can not photosynthesise.
- Fungi are therefore more closely related to animals than plants, in that they feed on other organisms – either dead, or alive: Like us, Fungi need to absorb their nutrition from other organic substances which contain protein, fats or carbohydrate.
- Instead of absorbing food within themselves, fungi secrete enzymes into the organic matter that they are feeding on; these break down the material, enabling fungi to absorb it into their cells.
- Our gastrointestinal tract hosts fungi (as well as other microorganisms). Through their enzyme actions, these aid digestion, helping us to break down and absorb nutrients from food.
- It is this enzyme action that enables fungi to thrive in such varied conditions – and represent such potential for our lives in the future.
- Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew have discovered a fungi which is capable of breaking down plastics in weeks rather than years, through their enzyme action. Some think this may help solve our ever growing issue of dealing with the waste we create… Best to think of how to reduce the size of our waste bins, too, I think!
- Unlike plants or animals, fungi are not motile (capable of active movement).
- Fungi reproduce through spores, rather than pollen, fruit or seeds, as plants do.
When the kingdom of ‘Fungi’ was initially given it’s distinct identity, it included mushrooms, yeast, molds, slime molds, water molds, puffballs and mildews. Later refined, slime and water molds are now classified separately: Protista. Mainly unicellular, Protista are less complex than the largely multicellular organisms that remain classified as True Fungi.
As with animals, the cell membranes of Fungi are made up of fat and protein molecules, or lipids. Their cell walls are aligned to that of arthropods (insects, crustaceans and molluscs), being made of the fibrous substance, chitin – compared with cellulose based plant cell molecules.
It is thought that fungi outnumber plant species by around 6:1. The current number of identified species is around 144,000. Estimates of numbers yet to be discovered vary hugely from 1.5 – 5.1 million.
Fungi are believed to be the most widely distributed organisms on earth, with different varieties living on land, in fresh and saltwater, inside the human body, on clothes and on / within plants and animals. Mild, moist conditions particularly suit them; although some can be found in the Artic and Antartic. And occasionally in a fridge which is well overdue for cleaning! It is believed, though, that 80%of fungi are associated with trees.
Fungi are all around us. Without them, our everyday lives would be very different.
Most obviously when walking in an Autumn garden or woodland, alongside bacteria, fungi are responsible for breaking down organic matter and releasing carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus into the soil and the atmosphere.
Human food & medicinal uses
We consume fungi in many forms. Most, like mushrooms (and truffles!) that we eat, are multicellular. Single celled examples include yeast; responsible for bread rising (with Sourdough being a very ancient example: utilising airborne yeast to rise the loaf through slow fermentation in the most mesmerizing way). Also yogurt, some cheese being ‘blue’, and alcohol as well as many ‘free from’ foods for example ‘Quorn’ – vegetable protein often used as a ‘meat substitute’. This is actually made from fungi, which is fermented and ends up as a high protein, high fibre food which is low in saturated fat. See here for more information about the relationship between fungi & Quorn.
Medicinal uses include antibiotics such as penicillin. Statins, used to control cholesterol and ward off heart disease, are made from fungi extracts. Fungi are also utilised in the production of organic vitamins and food supplements for humans and animal feed. The chemical responsible for some fungi’s renowned psychedelic qualities can now be harnessed to induce labour, and control hemorrhages following labour.
Different types of Fungi
The majority of fungi fall into the category Saprophytes, meaning that they feed on dead plant and animal material. As such, they are be a vital part of the cycle of life, helping to break down material – fallen trees, stumps, animal faeces, to release carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus back into the earth and atmosphere, as part of the rich cycle of life. The word Saprophytes is derived from the Greek words ‘Sapros’ (rotten) and ‘phyte’, (plant).
Pathogenic fungi cause disease to other organisms, including humans. There are around 300 known pathogenic fungi which cause harm to humans. The study of these fungi is called ‘medical mycology’. The study of organisms, including fungi, which are pathogenic to plants is called ‘plant pathology’.
Parasitic fungi feed on live organic matter, often weakening or killing it in the process. They are a major cause of disease in plants. Examples of diseases caused to humans by parasitic fungi are athlete’s foot, ringworm, and candidiasis, or thrush.
Symbiont or mutualistic fungi feed on live organic matter without harming it: both organisms benefit.
‘Lichens’ are complex life forms; symbiotic, mutually beneficial partnerships between fungi, the dominant partner which gives lichen the majority of its characteristics, and photosynthetic organisms, such as green algae. The fungi obtains simple sugar nutrition, in the form of carbon, whilst the photosynthetic organism absorbs mineral nutrients as a result of the external fungal digestion, as well as being protected from UV, dehydration and from grazing animals. Evidence of the success of this relationship is that the size of populations of green algae associated with lichen are often much larger than those outside lichens. (British Lichen Society).
‘Mycorrhiza’ (from the Greek Mycos, or ‘fungus’ & rhiza, ‘root’) are beneficial associations between plant roots and fungi. They effectively extend the root area of the plants (or trees). They extract food from the plants, in exchange for water and nutrients.
- In soils containing little phosphorus, plants with mycorrhizae have been shown to grow up to 20 times faster than those without.
- The survival of plant seedlings may also be up to five times greater if they have mycorrhizae to help them collect nutrients and water from the soil.
It’s incredible how many guises, and how much ability and potential Fungi have. They are beautiful forms. Quietly playing vital roles, as they have done for millennia, in the tapestry that makes our environment so intricately well designed and successful. But equally, so dangerously easy to take for granted – or overlook entirely.
Dahlberg, A., Genney, D. R. & Heilmann-Clausen, J. (2010). Developing a comprehensive‘At least 10% of European macrofungi are threatened with extinction, mainly due to changing land use and increasing nitrogen deposition.‘
strategy for fungal conservation in Europe: current status and future needs. Fungal Ecology 3: 50–64;Dahlberg, A., Genney: