Five Ways Fungi Have Shaped the World

max_thrower
Published on October 6th 2019
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a mushroom next to a globe
For a lot of you out there, thinking about fungi may bring to mind thoughts of poisonous toadstools, delicious edible mushrooms or mouldy leftovers. But there's a lot more to the kingdom of fungi than meets the eye.
A toadstool
There's more to fungi than toadstools!
As we approach UK Fungus Day 2019, we thought it would be a good idea to shed some light on these dark dwelling organisms, and how exactly they shape the world around us.

What are fungi?

Strangely, animals and fungi are more closely related than either are to plants, although each makes up their own kingdom of life, the second highest taxonomic rank.
Although eyecatching, these are all poisonous.
From single-celled yeast to perhaps the largest organism in the world, the diversity of the fungal kingdom rivals that of plants and animals and contains some pretty bizarre excuses for life. Check out Dan's list of some of the weirdest mushrooms and fungi out there.
A person in a garden

The Weirdest Mushrooms and Fungi in the World

PimlicoDan

With the help of the Briitish Mycological Society, here are five ways that fungi have shaped the world.

1. The Wood Wide Web

Mushrooms are only fruiting bodies of fungi, and the majority of their mass is made up of underground threads known as mycelium. These can form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, known as 'mycorrhizas'. It is suspected that these mycorrhizal networks occur in 95% of all plant species, and make up a vast part of what is increasingly being known as the 'Wood wide web'.
confocal image of hyphal tips
Tips of hyphae under the microscope. Photo: Patrick C. Hickey and Nick D. Read
But what's the point of these relationships? While plants can make their own food via photosynthesis, fungi are unable to do so. So the plant provides the fungus with sugars in return for nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen that the plants are unable to produce themselves.
These networks also help boost the plant's immune systems. It is also becoming increasingly clear that mycorrhiza may help plants share resources, even allowing them to warn each other when a threat is nearby, such as insects or harmful fungi.
mycorrhizal netwroks
The way in which mycorrhizal networks are used by plants to commmunicate is still being researched.
So ancient is this relationship, it is thought that the first plants to move from the oceans to land could not have done so without their fungal partner.

2. Breaking it down

Decomposition may not sound particularly glamorous, but if you consider that without fungi, the 100 billion tonnes of dead plant material produced annually across the world would accumulate, the importance of it becomes clear. There certainly wouldn't be mush-room.
As mentioned, fungi cannot make their own food, so they break down plant matter with enzymes. They can then absorb the nutrients that they need whilst releasing vital nutrients into the soil that are required for new growth to occur.
Fungi are vital to to creation of compost.
Without fungi, there would be no soil, garden plants, trees, crops, herbivores, insects and other pollinators, or humans!

3. Stuff you buy

As well as their global effects, fungi have some more direct impact on our lives.
If you've ever eaten bread, drunk a beer or tried marmite, you have yeast to thank. Yeasts are single-celled fungi that have been harnessed for millennia for our benefit.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae- brewers yeast
Saccharomyces cerevisiae- Brewer's yeast
What's more, fungi are also used to create, ripen and flavour cheese. Not only blue cheese mind - the rind of camembert is also made of a dense fungal web from the fungi Penicillium candidum.
Camembert
A fact essential for any dinner party.
As well as food, fungal products are surprisingly common. From acidity regulators in fizzy drinks to the components that break down fats in biological washing powder, your life would be very different without them.

4. Medicines

Penicillin is the most well-known drug derived from fungi. Discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 when he noticed bacterial growth being inhibited by a Penicillium fungi, the first modern antibiotic is thought to have saved upwards of 200 million lives.
Penecillium mould under a microscope
A Penecillium mould under a microscope
Since then, many more antibiotics have been discovered, as well as cholesterol-lowering statins and anti-rejection drugs that allow people to have organ transplants.

5. Diseases

Alas, it can't all be good. Many fungi have evolved to infect and cause disease in plants, animals and insects. This includes the Ash Dieback, the disease expected to cost the UK £15 billion. Fungal diseases can also devastate crop yields, leading to famines and increased use of pesticides.
A dying ash
Ash Dieback is a major problem in the UK
Chytrid fungus is also decimating amphibian species worldwide, and may have helped finish off the dinosaurs.
Closer to home, fungi can cause fatal diseases in those with weakened immune systems. Most people are likely to come into contact with a fungal infection in their lifetime, including thrush, ringworm or athletes foot.

Visit the Fungus Day UK website to find out how you can get involved this Sunday to discover more wonders of the fungal kingdom!

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