Fungi: Absolutely everything you need to know about these surprising lifeforms (2023)

What are fungi?

Fungi are decomposing, fermenting, edible, toxic, carbon-sequestering, disease-causing, disease-curing, pollutant-busting, mind-bending, rain-generating, zombie-making marvels. They underpin almost all life on Earth, but are mostly situated underground and often overlooked.

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When we think of fungi, mushrooms spring to mind, but these are just the small ‘above ground’ portion of the organism. Mushrooms are the fruiting body of the fungus, like the apples on a tree. Most of the fungus is hidden underground in the form of a branching network of tubular filaments called mycelium. If you took a teaspoon of healthy soil and lined up all the mycelium within it, it would stretch up to 10km.

Spread over 9km2, Oregon’s ‘Humongous Fungus’ is thought to be the world’s largest living organism.

Plant or animal?

Neither. Fungi belong to their own kingdom of life. It contains an estimated 2.2 to 3.8 million species, of which only 148,000 species or so have been described. Fungi used to be seen as simple plants, but scientists now realise that they are more closely related to animals than plants. Thousands of new fungal species are discovered every year.

How big are fungi?

Fungi come in a wide range of sizes. They can be single-celled and microscopic, like the yeast used in the beer-brewing industry, but they can also be multicellular and massive.

(Video) These fungi facts will blow your mind! 🍄 🤯 BBC

Spread over an astonishing 9km2, the ‘Humongous Fungus’ in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest is thought to be the world’s largest living organism. It weighs hundreds of tonnes and is estimated to be between 2,000 and 8,000 years old.

How do fungi interact with plants?

Around 90 per cent of land-living plants have fungi living in their roots. A single plant can house dozens of different species. Mycorrhizal fungi, as they are known, send out fine fungal tubes that penetrate the root tips of plants. The result is a mutually beneficial relationship, where the fungi siphon sugars from the plant, and the plant receives water and nutrients in return.

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The plant also becomes tapped into the much wider network of sprawling underground filaments, known as the Wood Wide Web. Plants near and far are connected by it. It enables them to share resources, such as nutrients and carbon, and also information. When broad bean plants are attacked by aphids, for example, they use the subterranean messaging system to send warning signals to neighbouring plants, which respond by releasing aphid-repelling chemicals.

Fungi: Absolutely everything you need to know about these surprising lifeforms (1)

How (and what) do fungi eat?

Fungi digest their food externally by secreting enzymes and then absorbing dissolved organic matter. Some fungi actively capture their prey. Arthrobotrys oligospora lures nematode worms to it by releasing molecules that smell like the worm’s natural food. On arrival, the hapless worm is then dissolved and digested.

Many fungi feed on dead or decaying material, such as rotting logs or animal corpses. As such, they play a vital role in recycling the world’s organic matter. Other fungi are parasites that feed on living organisms. Dutch elm disease (which affects trees) and ringworm (which affects people) are caused by parasitic fungi. All this is just for starters, as fungi can also digest rock, crude oil, plastics, cardboard and even explosive TNT.

Fungi: Absolutely everything you need to know about these surprising lifeforms (2)

(Video) Stephen Axford: How fungi changed my view of the world

Where do fungi live?

Just about everywhere, in just about everything… living organisms, soil, air, water, rock, even nuclear waste sites. Fungi found growing at the ruined Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine can absorb high levels of radiation, which they use as a source of energy. Now scientists are exploring whether fungi like this could help to protect people from radiation during deep space missions.

How do fungi reproduce?

They can reproduce sexually, asexually (without sex) and parasexually (where tiny filaments called hyphae fuse together). Often, reproduction involves the production of spores, which are a bit like the seeds of a plant. Spores are dispersed into the environment, enabling the fungus to colonise new areas.

Some fungi eject spores explosively, accelerating up to 10,000 times faster than a post-launch Space Shuttle. Others create their own microclimates. As water evaporates from the gills of a mushroom, it can create an updraught that helps to lift spores into the air.

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When did fungi first evolve?

Around a billion years ago. The first fungi would have been small, aquatic, single-celled organisms. Roughly 500 million years ago, they helped plants move out of the water onto the land, by acting as their root systems. Then 100 million years later, fungi were the tallest living things on Earth. Prototaxites was a massive, trunk-like fungus that grew up to nine metres in height.

Can you farm fungi?

Yes, but for further advice, please ask the leafcutter ant. These industrious insects feed the leaf fragments they collect to the fungi that they cultivate inside their enormous underground nests. The fungi are fed to the ant’s larvae, and the adults keep the resource in tip-top condition by obsessively monitoring it, feeding it and keeping it pest free.

Can fungi make zombies?

Yes, the unlucky carpenter ant can become the victim of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the zombie-ant fungus. At the start of an extraordinary sequence of events, the brain of an infected ant becomes hijacked, prompting it to climb a nearby plant and bite into a leaf that is exactly 25cm above the ground, at just the right temperature and humidity for the fungus to grow.

The fungus eats the ant’s internal organs and extends a long stalk through its head, which then bursts and rains spores down onto any ants below. The cycle of zombification continues.

What is the most helpful fungus?

Fungi can be killers, but they can also save lives. The antibiotic penicillin is produced by the fungus Penicillium. It was discovered, by accident, almost 100 years ago, when Alexander Fleming spotted a bacteria-slaying mould growing on a forgotten Petri dish.

(Video) You Didn’t Know Mushrooms Could Do All This | National Geographic

Since then, penicillin has saved hundreds of millions of lives, added 20 years of life expectancy across the world, and paved the way for countless procedures, such as caesareans and organ transplants, to be performed with a reduced risk of infection.

Penicillium is also helpful in food production. Penicillium camemberti and Penicillium roqueforti are used in Camembert, Brie, Roquefort and many other cheeses, while Penicillium nalgiovense is used to boost the flavour of certain sausages and hams.

Fungi can be killers, but they can also save lives. The antibiotic penicillin is produced by the fungus Penicillium.

Fungi: Absolutely everything you need to know about these surprising lifeforms (4)

What is the deadliest fungus?

Responsible for 90 per cent of the world’s mushroom-related fatalities, the deathcap mushroom is officially the world’s most poisonous mushroom. It looks like some edible mushrooms, such as the puffball and paddy straw, but eating it can lead to organ failure, seizures, coma and death.

Elsewhere, the chytrid fungus is decimating the world’s amphibians. It enters the animals’ bodies through their skin, upsets their fluid balance, and kills by causing heart failure. Spread around the world by the commercial trade in amphibians, it’s now found on every continent except Antarctica (where there are no amphibians).

Over the past 50 years, it has caused the decline of more than 400 amphibian species, and the extinction of 90.

The chytrid fungus has caused the decline of over 400 amphibian species, and extinction of 90.

How could fungi be used in the future?

There are so many opportunities for fungi. Fungi can be used to break down pollutants, such as pesticides, plastics and crude oil. Mycelium mats can filter contaminants, such as heavy metals, from dirty water.

(Video) What Was The First Fungus?

Fungi can be used to break down waste products from food production and the building sector, and build sustainable, carbon-neutral materials, such as fabrics and construction materials. The Trichoderma fungus can turn crop waste into bioethanol, while elsewhere in agriculture, fungi are being used to boost crop growth and help control disease.

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6 ways that fungi affect our lives

  1. Itaconic acid, derived from Aspergillus fungi, is used in a wide range of industries. Products include LEGO, plastic car parts, printing inks, UV coatings and synthetic rubber.
  2. More than 200 species of fungi are thought to be hallucinogenic. Psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, is being explored as a treatment for depression and anxiety.
  3. Adidas has developed a pair of trainers made from mycelium, and Stella McCartney has premiered a ‘panelled bustier and utilitarian trouser set’ fashioned from the same fungal product.
  4. Fungi can influence the weather. When their spores occur in clouds, they can seed raindrops and spur the formation of ice crystals, which can fall as snow, sleet or hail.
  5. The global market for edible mushrooms is worth over $42bn per year. But out of the estimated 10,000 mushroom species found worldwide, only about 350 species are known to be edible.
  6. Most fungi have cell walls made of chitin, which is a substance found in the exoskeletons of insects and the shells of crabs and lobsters.

Read more about fungi:

  • How most life on Earth is dependent on fungi – including you
  • Blue denim, the death of the dinosaurs, and 8 other things you didn’t know fungi played a role in
  • Merlin Sheldrake: How have fungi shaped the world?
  • Mushroom magic: 5 ways fungus-based technology will change the world

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To submit your questions email us at questions@sciencefocus.com (don't forget to include your name and location)

FAQs

What is fungi very short answer? ›

Fungi are eukaryotic organisms that include microorganisms such as yeasts, moulds and mushrooms. These organisms are classified under kingdom fungi.The organisms found in Kingdom fungi contain a cell wall and are omnipresent. They are classified as heterotrophs among the living organisms. They are eukaryotic organisms.

Where does fungi grow short answer questions? ›

Fungi are everywhere in very large numbers—in the soil and the air, in lakes, rivers, and seas, on and within plants and animals, in food and clothing, and in the human body.

Why is fungi so important to life? ›

The prime job of most fungi is to sustain the natural world. Along with bacteria, fungi are important as decomposers in the soil food web. They convert organic matter that is hard to digest into forms other organisms can use.

What are 3 things all fungi have in common? ›

Following are the important characteristics of fungi: Fungi are eukaryotic, non-vascular, non-motile and heterotrophic organisms. They may be unicellular or filamentous. They reproduce by means of spores.

What are 3 ways fungi are important? ›

Summary
  • Humans use fungi for many purposes, including as food or in the preparation of food.
  • Humans also use fungi for pest control.
  • In addition, fungi can be used to produce citric acid , antibiotics, and human hormones.
  • Fungi are model research organisms a s well .
Mar 5, 2021

What are the 4 types of fungi? ›

Fungi are usually classified in four divisions: the Chytridiomycota (chytrids), Zygomycota (bread molds), Ascomycota (yeasts and sac fungi), and the Basidiomycota (club fungi). Placement into a division is based on the way in which the fungus reproduces sexually.

How does fungi grow in human body? ›

Some fungi reproduce through tiny spores in the air. You can inhale the spores or they can land on you. As a result, fungal infections often start in the lungs or on the skin. You are more likely to get a fungal infection if you have a weakened immune system or take antibiotics.

What is fungi made of? ›

Like plants and animals, fungi are eukaryotic multicellular organisms. Unlike these other groups, however, fungi are composed of filaments called hyphae; their cells are long and thread-like and connected end-to-end, as you can see in the picture below.

Are fungi alive or dead? ›

Fungi are not plants. Living things are organized for study into large, basic groups called kingdoms.

Is fungi a plant or animal? ›

Mushrooms are fungi. They belong in a kingdom of their own, separate from plants and animals. Fungi differ from plants and animals in the way they obtain their nutrients. Generally, plants make their food using the sun's energy (photosynthesis), while animals eat, then internally digest, their food.

What are 5 examples of fungi? ›

The most common types of fungi includes yeasts, moulds, mushroom, puff balls and smuts.

Can life exist without fungi? ›

Without fungi to aid in decomposition, all life in the forest would soon be buried under a mountain of dead plant matter. “[Fungi] are the garbage disposal agents of the natural world,” according to Cardiff University biosciences professor Lynne Boddy.

What would happen if we had no fungi? ›

Without decomposer fungi, we would soon be buried in litter and debris. They are particularly important in litter decomposition, nutrient cycling and energy flows in woody ecosystems, and are dominant carbon and organic nutrient recyclers of forest debris.

How fungi can change the world? ›

Fungi give the trees much-needed nutrients extracted from the soil. In exchange, the trees supply carbon they've pulled from the air by photosynthesis. Fungi need carbon to grow. Carbon travels one way, and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous the other.

Do fungi have DNA? ›

Fungi are eukaryotes and have a complex cellular organization. As eukaryotes, fungal cells contain a membrane-bound nucleus where the DNA is wrapped around histone proteins. A few types of fungi have structures comparable to bacterial plasmids (loops of DNA).

How do fungi reproduce? ›

Most fungi reproduce by forming spores that can survive extreme conditions such as cold and lack of water. Both sexual meiotic and asexual mitotic spores may be produced, depending on the species and conditions. Most fungi life cycles consist of both a diploid and a haploid stage.

How do fungi breathe? ›

Mushrooms need to breath just like humans do, except they do not have lungs. Mushroom cells exchange gases directly with the atmosphere. If the body of the mushroom is submerged in water it is comparable to drowning.

How does fungi harm humans? ›

Fungi cause three different types of human illness: poisonings, para sitic i nfections, and allergies. Many poisonous mushrooms are eaten by mistake because they look like edible mushrooms. Parasitic yeasts cause candidiasis, ringworm, and athlete's foot. Mold allergies are very common.

What fungi is good for humans? ›

Mushroom and yeast are 2 examples of useful fungi. Many species of mushrooms are edible and are an important source of food. Yeast is used in various fields, and some species are used to make bread and cheese.

How are fungi harmful? ›

Most fungi are saprophytic and not pathogenic to plants, animals and humans. However, a relative few fungal species are phytopathogenic, cause disease (e.g., infections, allergies) in man, and produce toxins that affect plants, animals and humans.

What do fungi eat? ›

Fungi get their nutrition by absorbing organic compounds from the environment. Fungi areheterotrophic: they rely solely on carbon obtained from other organisms for their metabolism and nutrition.

What is the most common fungi? ›

The fungal group Basidiomycota, also known as the club fungi, includes some of the most familiar fungi. Within this group of 16,000 species are the mushrooms, toadstools, shelf fungi, and puffballs. Basidiomycetes play a key role in the environment as decomposers of plant litter.

How do fungi get their energy? ›

All fungi are heterotrophic, which means that they get the energy they need to live from other organisms. Like animals, fungi extract the energy stored in the bonds of organic compounds such as sugar and protein from living or dead organisms. Many of these compounds can also be recycled for further use.

Can fungi grow in your brain? ›

Fungal meningitis can develop after a fungal infection spreads from somewhere else in the body to the brain or spinal cord. Some causes of fungal meningitis include Cryptococcus, Histoplasma, Blastomyces, Coccidioides, and Candida.

Can fungi grow in blood? ›

Systemic fungal infections affect tissue inside your body. The fungus may grow in your lungs, blood, and other organs, including your brain. Anyone can get a systemic fungal infection, but they are less common in healthy people.

Can fungi get viruses? ›

Mycoviruses are viruses that infect fungi and replicate in fungi. However, the host range of mycoviruses is not likely to be restricted to fungi in the future since more and more mycoviruses are found to be closely related to other viruses that do not infect fungi.

Are humans a fungi? ›

Humans are vertebrates that belong to the kingdom Animalia and Fungi is a separate kingdom. Humans are not fungi. There are many differences between them. Fungi are decomposers, they break down complex organic matter into inorganic compounds.

Do all humans have fungi? ›

Some fungi even live in our bodies. Together with more than 10,000 other microbial species found in our guts and on our skin, fungi make up our microbiota. The microbiota is composed of millions of harmless microorganisms that inhabit the human body. Usually we live happily together.

Can fungi live on the human body? ›

Fungi can live outdoors in soil and on plants, indoors on surfaces and in the air, and on people's skin and inside the body. There are millions of fungal species, but only a few hundred of them can make people sick. Mild fungal skin infections can look like a rash and are very common.

Do fungi feel pain? ›

Despite this, mushrooms do not possess a nervous system, meaning they do not feel pain.

Can fungi live without oxygen? ›

Most fungi are obligate aerobes, requiring oxygen to survive, however some species, such as the Chytridiomycota that reside in the rumen of cattle, are obligate anaerobes; for these species, anaerobic respiration is used because oxygen will disrupt their metabolism or kill them.

When did humans split from fungi? ›

Vilgalys said scientists estimate that the lineage that included both fungi and animals split off from other eukaryotes about 1 billion years ago, while fungi and plants separated about 600 million years ago.

Who discovered fungi? ›

Fungi were found by Heinrich Anton de Bary in 1858. Fungi is a genus of heterotrophic, mostly multicellular eukaryotic creatures (cannot make their food). They could be filamentous or unicellular. They reproduce by means of spores.

Is fungi a fruit or vegetable? ›

Mushrooms are fungi but are counted as vegetables and are an important source of nutrients and bioactive compounds.

Do fungi have cell walls? ›

The cell wall is a characteristic structure of fungi and is composed mainly of glucans, chitin and glycoproteins. As the components of the fungal cell wall are not present in humans, this structure is an excellent target for antifungal therapy.

Where do most fungi live? ›

Fungi can be single celled or very complex multicellular organisms. They are found in just about any habitat but most live on the land, mainly in soil or on plant material rather than in sea or fresh water.

What disease do fungi cause? ›

Mild fungal skin diseases can look like a rash and are very common. Fungal diseases in the lungs are often similar to other illnesses such as bacterial or viral pneumonia. Some fungal diseases like fungal meningitis and bloodstream infections are less common than skin and lung infections but can be deadly.

What are the 6 importance of fungi? ›

Importance of Fungi in Agriculture

Release of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus in the soil. Production of different enzymes in soil. Enhancement of plant growth. Prevent plants from different pathogens.

What are two facts about fungi? ›

Fungi are not plants. Living things are organized for study into large groups called kingdoms. Fungi were listed in the Plant Kingdom for years. Then scientists learned that fungi show a closer relation to animals, but are unique and separate life forms.

What are fungi made of? ›

The cell wall is a characteristic structure of fungi and is composed mainly of glucans, chitin and glycoproteins. As the components of the fungal cell wall are not present in humans, this structure is an excellent target for antifungal therapy.

How does fungi reproduce? ›

Most fungi reproduce by forming spores that can survive extreme conditions such as cold and lack of water. Both sexual meiotic and asexual mitotic spores may be produced, depending on the species and conditions. Most fungi life cycles consist of both a diploid and a haploid stage.

What are two important uses of fungi? ›

The uses of fungi are as follows:
  • Fungi are used in the production of antibiotics, medicines such as penicillin, streptomycin, etc.
  • Mushroom that is highly proteinaceous belongs to fungi that are consumed in the form of food.
  • In the bakery yeast is used in all the products and also in the food and beverages industries.

What is unique feature of fungi *? ›

All fungi have some features in common, but other special structural and reproductive features separate the four phyla (see Table ). Structure. The fungi are eukaryotic and have membrane-bound cellular organelles and nuclei. They have no plastids of any kind (and no chlorophyll).

What is life history of fungi? ›

In the life cycle of a sexually reproducing fungus, a haploid phase alternates with a diploid phase. The haploid phase ends with nuclear fusion, and the diploid phase begins with the formation of the zygote (the diploid cell resulting from fusion of two haploid sex cells).

Was fungi The first thing on earth? ›

Fungi were some of the first complex life forms on land, mining rocks for mineral nourishment, slowly turning them into what would become soil. In the Late Ordovician era, they formed a symbiotic relationship with liverworts, the earliest plants.

How do fungi harm humans? ›

Fungi cause three different types of human illness: poisonings, para sitic i nfections, and allergies. Many poisonous mushrooms are eaten by mistake because they look like edible mushrooms. Parasitic yeasts cause candidiasis, ringworm, and athlete's foot. Mold allergies are very common.

What is the most important fungus? ›

Penicillin, perhaps the most famous of all antibiotic drugs, is derived from a common fungus called Penicillium. Many other fungi also produce antibiotic substances, which are now widely used to control diseases in human and animal populations. The discovery of antibiotics revolutionized health care worldwide.

Where are fungi found? ›

Fungi can live outdoors in soil and on plants, indoors on surfaces and in the air, and on people's skin and inside the body. There are millions of fungal species, but only a few hundred of them can make people sick.

Does skin fungus itch? ›

Fungal skin infections can be itchy and annoying, but they're rarely serious. Common infections such as athlete's foot, jock itch, and ringworm are caused by fungus and are easy to get and to pass around. In healthy people, they usually don't spread beyond the skin's surface, so they're easy to treat.

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