Fantastic Fungi

Fungi play a critical role in medicine, ecology, agriculture, and much more. Here are a few fascinating facts about these amazing organisms.

Fungi rule their own kingdom. More similar to animals than plants, fungi are classified into their own kingdom. Plants make their own food, while animals and fungi gather their food. Hyphae secrete enzymes (similar to those found in the stomachs of animals) to predigest the food.

Mushroom are fungi, but only a small percent of fungi produce mushrooms. Mushrooms are the “fruit” or “flower” of fungi, like the apples on an apple tree.

Fungi live everywhere. Fungi live in the soil and sand, in the air, on rocks, in plants, and even in some animals.  It is estimated that there are more than 5 million species of fungi. Fungi make up 90% of the total biomass in forest soils and 50% in agricultural soils. Fungi represent about 25% of the biomass on Earth.

Most fungi are too small to see. A single fungal filament is 10 times thinner than a human hair.

Fungi play an important role in medicine.  The biologically active compounds produced by fungi are included in a variety of medical treatments including antibiotics, anticancer drugs, cholesterol inhibitors, and more. Learn more about how the Natural Products Discovery Group uses fungi in drug discovery.

Fungi are nature’s recyclers. Decomposers break down anything carbon based, which is basically anything that has lived and died. If it weren’t for fungi, we’d be buried under many feet of dead plant and animal tissues. Thanks to fungi, these materials are broken down and their essential chemical components released allowing other organisms to grow.

Some glow in the dark. More than 70 different fungal species emit light. This bioluminescence, sometimes called foxfire, acts to ward off  hungry animals, but also attracts insects as a way to spread spores. Read more.

The largest and oldest organism on Earth is a Fungus. The Armillaria ostoyae was discovered in 1998 by a team of forestry scientists in the Malheur National Forest, in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. Known as “honey mushrooms”, this fungus resides most of the year underground in an area that occupies roughly 3.4 square miles (over 2,150 acres). But getting that large did not happen overnight. It is estimated that in order to grow this large, the fungus is between 2,400 and 8,650 years old. Learn More.

In every breath we take. Depending on where you live and the time of year, the air you breath may contain as many as 10,000 fungal spores per cubic meter. You breathe in up to 4 spores with every breath and as many as 92,000 each day.

Fungi and food. Much more than the mushrooms on your pizza, fungi are used in the manufacture of many types of foods. Yeasts are used to make alcohol and breads. Molds are used in the production of cheeses. Fungi can also be consumed as a meat substitute and protein source.

The world’s most expensive food is a fungus. European white truffles, known as “black diamonds” is the most expensive food in the world, selling for as much as $3,600 a pound.

Live forever? Mushrooms’ spores can sit dormant for decades and still grow when exposed to the right conditions.

Environmental clean-up crew. A form of bioremediation, fungi can be used to absorb and digest dangerous contaminants in the environment like petroleum products, pesticides, and industrial waste. Read more about mycoremediation.

Fungi create zombies. The fungal genus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is known to infect ants, taking over control of the ants behavior. The fungus then directs its ant host to an optimal location for the fungus to thrive by consuming the ant from the inside out. Once the ant is eaten, the fungus can spread by way of spores to infect new ants. Read more about zombie ants