The Hidden Kingdom Of Fungi — Both Benefits And Problems

October 30, 2022 at 8:16 p.m.


According to Keith Seifert in his book “The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi,” most people are unaware of fungi, although we pass them every day and inhale their spores with every breath.

Fungi are stereotyped as agents of decay, disease, rot and mould, spoiling everything that is clean and pristine. We tolerate moulds in compost buckets but not on our bread. We have strong opinions about whether mushrooms are acceptable as food. The rest — the thousands of species we encounter every day — remain unseen and unimagined.

Classification  

Fungi are usually classified into 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 the fungus reproduces sexually. The shape and internal structure of the  sporangia, which produce the spores, are the not useful character for identifying these various major groups.

Fungi make up one of life’s kingdoms — as broad and busy a category as “animals” or “plants.” Microscopic yeasts are fungi, as are the sprawling networks of honey fungi, or Armillaria, which are among the largest organisms in the world. Many of the most dramatic events on Earth have been — and continue to be — a result of fungal activity. Plants only made it out of the water around 500 million years ago because of their collaboration with fungi, which served as their root systems for tens of millions of years until plants could evolve their own.

Today, more than 90 percent of plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi — from the Greek words for fungus (mykes) and root (rhiza) —which can link trees in shared networks sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.” This ancient association gave rise to all recognizable life on land, the future of which depends on the continued ability of plants and animals.

The Kingdom Fungi is the home to molds, mushrooms, lichens, rusts, smuts and yeasts.  It comprises eukaryotes with remarkably diverse life histories that make essential contributions to the biosphere, human industry, medicine and research.  (Eukaryote cells contain membrane bound organelles including a nucleus, mitochondria and an endoplasmic reticulum. Eukaryotic cells are larger and more complex than prokaryotic cells found in archea and bacteria.)

Benefits

Over our long history together, fungi have often been our rivals, but they also help us out quite a lot. We often join forces with single-celled fungi called yeasts. There are thousands of wild species, but a few are essential for producing our staple foods and drink. Yeasts grow in many sorts of liquid, including the water-saturated bodies of insects and humans.

There they help keep the digestive tract ticking along as part of our friendly gut flora, and they form part of the microbial coating that protects our skin. Moulds are critically important hidden partners on farms and in forests as intimate associates inside plants and animals. We adapt many chemicals fungi make for their own purposes as medicines like antibiotics.

Fungal enzymes — proteins that break down, put together, or rearrange other molecules in biochemical reactions — are used as additives in industry to boost detergents or to help make biofuels. They were among the most successful early products of modern biotechnology.

Recycling

Fungi are essential for recycling as well.  When trees die from a disease or old age, fungi spread into the log from the earth below and start decomposing it. These fungi are part of a vast network of underground vegetation called mycelium, composed of very tiny, cobweb-like threads of organic life called hyphae. All along the thousands of miles of mycelium occupying this one big log, the mycelium uses the fungi to send out enzymes and organic acids that break down the lignin in the wood’s cell walls that gives the wood its structure and strength.

In the process of decaying, the wood releases its nutrients. Those nutrients become available to other organisms in the food web, including the fungus, which distributes the nutrients through the mycelium.

Problems

Unfortunately, when we aren’t looking, fungi also cause problems, such as plant diseases like rusts, blights, smuts, mildews and cankers. With their talents for biodegradation-breaking down organic matter — fungi rot out the floorboards of our houses, or spoil our food and lace it with toxins.

Doctors are familiar with itchy fungal skin conditions, like dandruff, ringworm and athlete’s foot, and more frightening infections called mycoses. And like some human viruses that concern us, fungi sometimes jump from continent to continent causing new diseases to spring up in distant locations.

Final Thoughts

As Paul Stamets explains in his book “Fantastic Fungi,” “those of us who pick mushrooms, should know that when you pick one,  you stand upon a vast, hidden network of fungal mycelium that literally extends underneath every footstep you take. These networks are the foundation of life. They create the soils that nourish all life on land. Without fungi, we do not have soil. Without soil, there is no life.”

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected].

According to Keith Seifert in his book “The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi,” most people are unaware of fungi, although we pass them every day and inhale their spores with every breath.

Fungi are stereotyped as agents of decay, disease, rot and mould, spoiling everything that is clean and pristine. We tolerate moulds in compost buckets but not on our bread. We have strong opinions about whether mushrooms are acceptable as food. The rest — the thousands of species we encounter every day — remain unseen and unimagined.

Classification  

Fungi are usually classified into 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 the fungus reproduces sexually. The shape and internal structure of the  sporangia, which produce the spores, are the not useful character for identifying these various major groups.

Fungi make up one of life’s kingdoms — as broad and busy a category as “animals” or “plants.” Microscopic yeasts are fungi, as are the sprawling networks of honey fungi, or Armillaria, which are among the largest organisms in the world. Many of the most dramatic events on Earth have been — and continue to be — a result of fungal activity. Plants only made it out of the water around 500 million years ago because of their collaboration with fungi, which served as their root systems for tens of millions of years until plants could evolve their own.

Today, more than 90 percent of plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi — from the Greek words for fungus (mykes) and root (rhiza) —which can link trees in shared networks sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.” This ancient association gave rise to all recognizable life on land, the future of which depends on the continued ability of plants and animals.

The Kingdom Fungi is the home to molds, mushrooms, lichens, rusts, smuts and yeasts.  It comprises eukaryotes with remarkably diverse life histories that make essential contributions to the biosphere, human industry, medicine and research.  (Eukaryote cells contain membrane bound organelles including a nucleus, mitochondria and an endoplasmic reticulum. Eukaryotic cells are larger and more complex than prokaryotic cells found in archea and bacteria.)

Benefits

Over our long history together, fungi have often been our rivals, but they also help us out quite a lot. We often join forces with single-celled fungi called yeasts. There are thousands of wild species, but a few are essential for producing our staple foods and drink. Yeasts grow in many sorts of liquid, including the water-saturated bodies of insects and humans.

There they help keep the digestive tract ticking along as part of our friendly gut flora, and they form part of the microbial coating that protects our skin. Moulds are critically important hidden partners on farms and in forests as intimate associates inside plants and animals. We adapt many chemicals fungi make for their own purposes as medicines like antibiotics.

Fungal enzymes — proteins that break down, put together, or rearrange other molecules in biochemical reactions — are used as additives in industry to boost detergents or to help make biofuels. They were among the most successful early products of modern biotechnology.

Recycling

Fungi are essential for recycling as well.  When trees die from a disease or old age, fungi spread into the log from the earth below and start decomposing it. These fungi are part of a vast network of underground vegetation called mycelium, composed of very tiny, cobweb-like threads of organic life called hyphae. All along the thousands of miles of mycelium occupying this one big log, the mycelium uses the fungi to send out enzymes and organic acids that break down the lignin in the wood’s cell walls that gives the wood its structure and strength.

In the process of decaying, the wood releases its nutrients. Those nutrients become available to other organisms in the food web, including the fungus, which distributes the nutrients through the mycelium.

Problems

Unfortunately, when we aren’t looking, fungi also cause problems, such as plant diseases like rusts, blights, smuts, mildews and cankers. With their talents for biodegradation-breaking down organic matter — fungi rot out the floorboards of our houses, or spoil our food and lace it with toxins.

Doctors are familiar with itchy fungal skin conditions, like dandruff, ringworm and athlete’s foot, and more frightening infections called mycoses. And like some human viruses that concern us, fungi sometimes jump from continent to continent causing new diseases to spring up in distant locations.

Final Thoughts

As Paul Stamets explains in his book “Fantastic Fungi,” “those of us who pick mushrooms, should know that when you pick one,  you stand upon a vast, hidden network of fungal mycelium that literally extends underneath every footstep you take. These networks are the foundation of life. They create the soils that nourish all life on land. Without fungi, we do not have soil. Without soil, there is no life.”

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected].
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