The author has worked in conservation and woodland management over many years.
What's So Special About Fungi?
Fungi exist all over the world and are as important to our lives as wheat, cattle, fish, or any other living thing. Here are just a few of the reasons to admire this life form:
- Without the various types of fungi on Earth, we would soon be knee-deep in dead leaves and other plant matter that would refuse to rot.
- Trees that died would continue to lie where they fell. Only fungi can break down lignin, the tough material at the heart of woody tissue.
- Our crops would fail because the nutrients that fungi recycle from dead plant tissue would no longer be available.
- Important farm animals such as sheep would be unable to digest grass without the help they get from some friendly fungi.
And then there is the sheer beauty of many of these organisms. What would our woods and fields be like without all those stunning mushrooms and (sometimes sinister) toadstools in the fall? This page takes a look at a very important group of living things that, on the whole, we should all be grateful for.
What Exactly Are Fungi?
Scientists used to place fungi in the plant kingdom, primarily because they were thought to be incapable of moving under their own power. Closer study has shown, however, that at least some fungi have reproductive stages involving gametes that can swim.
The most obvious way in which fungi differ from plants, though, is that they do not make food from sunlight and carbon dioxide. Like animals, fungi feed by digesting and absorbing what they need from their environment. Nowadays, fungi are given their own kingdom.
Types of Fungi by Family
Within the Fungi kingdom, these are the most important families, or "phyla":
- Basidiomycota: This family includes mushrooms and toadstools.
- Ascomycota: Sometimes called sac fungi, members of this family often have vivid, eyecatching fruiting bodies. This group includes the very tasty morels (see below) and truffles. It also includes the penicillin species which gave us the first effective antibiotic.
- Neocallimastigomycota: These fungi live in the digestive tracts of plant-eating animals like sheep. The enzymes that they produce break down polysaccharides like cellulose, the tough material that gives plants their strength. Once these fungi do their work, the simpler carbohydrates that are produced can be used by sheep as food.
- Blastocladiomycota: This family consists mostly of soil dwellers that digest detritus of all kinds
- Glomeromycota: This is a very specialized family of fungi that live in a beneficial symbiosis with liverworts (small plants similar to mosses).
- Chytridiomycota: These ancient fungi digest tough proteins like keratin (common in skin and hair) and chitin (especially common in the exoskeletons of insects).
- Microsporidia: This is a small group of single-celled, parasitic fungi that mostly infect beetles.
Below, I've included a closer look at the two most important groups, or phyla: Basidiomycota and Ascomycota.
Basidiomycota is a large family and the one we are most familiar with. It includes:
- Bracket fungi
- Jelly fungi
- Earth stars
Mushrooms are one of the most noticeable groups of fungi. Most of each fungus organism is hidden from view in soil, leaves, or deadwood (depending on the species). The large fruiting bodies that emerge (mostly in the fall) are conspicuous and often very beautiful. Some mushrooms are even bio-luminescent, as you can see in the video below.
How Do They Eat?
Like most fungi, Basidiomycota are saprotrophic, which means they decompose dead matter, including the toughest plant materials like lignin—a major structural component of trees.
Underground, Basidiomycota produce large networks of tiny tubes called "hyphae." These grow through dead plant and animal material by secreting enzymes that dissolve a pathway. The dissolved material is absorbed and digested as food.
How Do They Reproduce?
The fruiting bodies we see above ground disperse spores, which develop into new individuals. Some of these fruiting bodies, like the Russulas pictured above, make very good meals. Others, like the Amanitas pictured second, will make you very sick. Exercise caution!
Ascomycota is the largest phylum of fungi with over 64,000 species. Some of these fungi are extremely valuable to humans for their culinary applications. There are two main groups, or subphyla: Pezizomycotina and Saccharomycotina.
Pezizomycotina fungi have fruiting bodies similar to mushrooms and include morels, truffles, ergot, and cup fungi. Truffles (Tuber genus) are one of the most expensive foods on the planet. It is impossible to grow truffles on a large scale, and they are very rare even in their favorite woodland habitats.
Pigs or dogs with especially sensitive noses are used to locate the highly prized underground fruiting bodies. White truffles sometimes cost around $5 per gram ($2,000 per pound), but their value changes each season depending on supply.
This group comprises most of the yeasts, including the very important baker's yeast. The white bloom on grapes (pictured above, third) is a mixture of wild yeasts and molds. In the past, natural yeasts present on grapes were relied on to ferment the juice and produce wine.
Nowadays, commercial winemakers usually innoculate grape juice with a high dose of a single variety of specially grown yeast like Saccharomyces cerevisiae rather than relying on the slower-growing wild yeasts. Whichever yeasts are used, the process is essentially the same. The yeasts consume sugar (without needing oxygen) and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide in the fermentation process.
Most fungi are beneficial. Certain mushrooms make wonderful ingredients as-is, and yeasts help us create some of our staple foods like bread. Detritus-eating fungi keep our crops supplied with nutrients via their efficient recycling of decaying organic material. There are, however, some fungi that can be harmful to humans.
- Athlete's foot is caused by the Trichophyton fungus.
- The spores from some Ascomycota, like the powdery mildews, are a serious problem for gardeners and farmers, especially during wet years.
- Late potato blight is caused by Phytophthora infestans, which is not a true fungus but is very closely related. It and other water-molds turn plant tissues to mush. In the 19th century, most of the human population in Ireland relied on potatoes for food. Potato blight wiped out crops, and millions of people died or were forced to emigrate.
- Fungi, especially molds, can affect prepared foods like bread, fruit preserves, pickles, and cheese. If mold has penetrated deeply into food, it needs to be discarded.
- Ergot is an interesting fungus that can thrive in stored cereals like rye if they become damp. The hallucinations and convulsions caused by Ergot ingestion were responsible for "Saint Anthony's fire" during the Middle Ages. Whole communities were seized with strange symptoms that were often ascribed to witchcraft.
- Dutch elm disease has been responsible for the deaths of millions of elm trees around the world. Beetles that bore under the bark of elm trees carry a fungus that invades the trees' inner tissues.
- A few species of parasitic fungi affect farmed and wild fish.
The types of fungi that cause wood decay are crucial in recycling nutrients from fallen trees but can be a menace in wooden homes and other buildings. Usually, the complete decay of dead wood involves many kinds of fungi. Wood decay fungi are usually broken into three groups:
- Brown-rot fungi: produce hydrogen peroxide which attacks cellulose
- Soft-rot fungi: produce an enzyme called cellulase which digests cellulose
- White-rot fungi: produce enzymes capable of digesting lignin
Despite the damage that fungi can do to homes and foods, I stand by my original statement. Fungi, overall, are good for us, and we should be grateful for them!
My Fungi Photos
Some of these are beautiful, and others are a little sinister. A number of these fungi are edible, but you should never eat any fungi from the wild without expert advice. Many people die each year as a result of eating poisonous species.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Will Apse (author) on March 16, 2020:
@natalia edmonds the more you know about them the more interesting they are. Hope you find time to go hunting for them one day (with a guide).
natalia edmonds on March 16, 2020:
amazing artical,learnt a lot.
Will Apse (author) on September 14, 2011:
Fungi 'holidays' or 'forages' with experts are really popular in the UK. I'm glad people do the same thing in the US.
Better luck on your next trip!
Jason Menayan from San Francisco on September 13, 2011:
Great stuff. We went on a (failed) morel mushroom hunt a few months ago with a mycologist. We're going to try again in December, when, hopefully, the moist weather will have allowed a bunch of fungal delicacies to grow. I wouldn't dare trying to eat something without having an experienced mushroom hunter or mycologist examine it first, either.
Will Apse (author) on September 11, 2011:
JT- I wouldn't dare try to describe which fungi are safe and which are not. Even if you have a really good reference book it is difficult to differentiate between some very enjoyable species and some very dangerous species.
If you want to learn about which fungi are safe, I reckon you need an expert. That means a course. Or finding someone who has been collecting mushrooms for a good while
JT Walters from Florida on September 11, 2011:
Yes very useful hub.
I would have been really interested in knowing which mushrooms were edible and which ones are not.
I enjoyed the hub.
Will Apse (author) on September 11, 2011:
One advantage the French and Italians have over the British and Americans is that they really know their fungi.
Every family in the countryside has special places to gather fungi that only they know about. They even pass these secret locations from generation to generation.
Wanderlust from New York City on September 11, 2011:
I love all kind of mushrooms, chanterelle and truffles are my favorites. In Europe gathering wild mushrooms in the forest is a popular activity, too bad it is not that popular in the USA. Great hub!
Cindy Murdoch from Texas on September 11, 2011:
Very nice hub. I love all the different fungi and mushrooms and often take pictures of them. The colors that seem to just manifest out of nothing are so amazing. And the different forms it takes... Thanks for sharing... I'm looking forward to a trek in the woods.
Gordon Hamilton from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom on September 11, 2011:
Great information, Will.
I love mushrooms - always have done - and my ex was a biochemist. When we travelled in the wilds and came across different fungi, she would always know which were edible and which were not, without me having to go through the rigmarole of the lip test.
Personally, I love a variety of mushrooms, fried in butter and garlic as a delicious lunch - just like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall used to prepare on his gastro-bike! :)
I just wish our supermarkets and greengrocers were a bit more adventurous in the mushrooms they offer for sale. So many consumers are missing out on so many different and delicious flavours.
Will Apse (author) on September 11, 2011:
Thank you both. It is amazing how much I enjoyed writing this page. I think it is just to do with the pure pleasure of how rich and varied life is. I also like morels!
ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on September 11, 2011:
It is amazing how every living thing contributes in some way to life on earth. A very good hub.
p.s. I love morels
DavyJones02 from Netherlands on September 11, 2011:
A well put together hub!
Voted up and interesting