What are fungi you ask?
Fungi, like bacteria and viruses, represent their own kingdom of organisms.
Where is the actual fungus?
Their build-up is more complex than that of bacteria and viruses. Due to their cellular build-up, they are somewhat related to protozoa, animals, and plants (they are so-called eukaryotes). Fungi cannot generate energy from sunlight as plants do. Rather, they need to live from organic material like bacteria, and most protozoa have to do. Some of them also live as parasites. That means that they live off of other cells.
Fungi have a cell wall composed of chitin. That is the same material that is in the external skeleton of insects.
How big are fungi?
With some exceptions fungi are immobile. There are many different varieties of fungi. Depending on the kind of fungus it can be unicellular or consist of multiple connected cells (sometimes with no clear division between each other).
Their size can range from very small to mega-large. Even the smallest fungus is still significantly larger than the typical bacterium and can easily be seen under a normal microscope. Many fungi are large enough to be seen with plain eyes though. The largest fungus that is currently known has been found in a forest in Oregon. It covers an area of 3.5 square miles (more than 900 ha) and is estimated to be 9000 years old.
Just to make it clear: this fungus looks like this,
NOT like this.
So, are fungi and mushrooms not the same?
No. Because, when we talk about fungi, we do not automatically mean mushrooms. Mushrooms are just a means formed by some kinds of a fungus to reproduce through spores. Spores have the same function seeds have in plants – a new fungus grows from the spore. The mushroom is similar in function to the fruit of a plant that encapsulates the seed(s).
Where do they live?
Fungi live in the soil and the water. We can also find them in and on animals and plants. It has been estimated that there are between 2.2 and 3.8 million different fungal species living on earth. Of those only a little bit more than 100,000 have been described so far. A small number of them is harmful to plants. An even smaller number – around 300 – can be dangerous to animals and humans.
The central role of fungi in our lives
Many fungi play a pivotal role in our lives and the lives of many other inhabitants of the earth:
They are decomposing organic matter. Together with bacteria and protozoa, they are responsible for building new soil from dead materials. Sometimes this can be negative for us because they also cause food to become rotten. But overall their positive role as decomposers in nature by far outweighs this downside.
Multiple fungi live in Symbiosis with other life forms. Symbiosis means that each of the partners in the relationship gets an advantage out of it. Certain ants, termites, and bugs grow some kinds of fungus as food. Many plants rely on fungi growing at their roots to get better access to nutrients they need to grow. Finally, but most famously, lichens consist of fungi and algae living in symbiosis.
And there is more your favorite fungus can do for you!
Some fungi can produce medicines to fight off bacteria – so-called antibiotics. We, humans, have harnessed this to develop powerful antibiotics against harmful bacteria. Also, there are fungi that produce other drugs useful against viruses and cancer cells.
We use others to create food such as cheese, salami, bread, soy sauce, and alcohol. Bread and alcohol like, e.g. beer and wine are produced with the help of a well-known fungus called yeast. You can even buy it in your local supermarket as baker’s yeast if you want to do some experiments (or make a cake).
That’s me, folks!
Finally, of course, some types of fungus build mushrooms, many of which you can eat. But be aware that some mushrooms are non-edible or even toxic. So never eat a mushroom that cannot be clearly identified as edible. Sometimes mushrooms one can eat, and mushrooms that are toxic even look very similar.
But what about the harmful ones?
As for the fungi harmful to humans: In most instances, they will affect the skin and nails, which may be itching and annoying, and needs treatment. But they rarely will make you seriously ill. If you want to learn how to protect yourself from the ones that can cause you harm, please click on the fungal germs below.