Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Many Uses of Fungi

One pleasure of fall in my area is the large number of wild mushrooms that emerge from the soil. Nature walks are very interesting at this time of year. There's a certain sadness in seeing leaves dying and falling from the trees, but there's also joy in seeing the aerial parts of fungi and remembering that life is still present, even if it's hidden from view.

The body of a fungus is made of thread-like structures called hyphae. These form a branching tangle known as a mycelium. The mycelium of a fungus is located in the medium that is providing food for the fungus. Examples of this medium include soil, decaying wood and human food.

A mushroom seen and photographed on one of my walks
Unlike green plants, fungi are heterotrophic. This means they have to obtain food from their environment instead of making it inside their body. Unlike animals, however, fungi don't eat food and then digest it within their bodies. Instead, they release digestive enzymes into their food and then absorb the digested food.

A mushroom is made of compacted hyphae. Its function is to produce and distribute the reproductive spores of the fungus. Mushrooms have a wide variety of shapes, forms, sizes and colours and are interesting to observe.

Mushrooms are popular as food. This is definitely a great benefit of fungi, as long as the mushrooms are edible and not poisonous. There are many other ways in which fungi help us, however. Some of these are listed below.
  • Penicillium chrysogenum and other fungi produce penicillin, an antibiotic that fights bacteria that make us sick.
  • Cephalosporins are also antibiotics produced by fungi.
  • Cyclosporine A is a fungal chemical that acts as an immunosuppressant in humans. This substance is useful in situations such as organ transplants where doctors want to stop the patient's immune system from destroying the donated organ or tissue.
  • Ergot alkaloids constrict blood vessels, which can help to relieve migraine pain. These chemicals have to be used carefully, however, because they are potentially dangerous.
  • Aspergillus terreus produces lovastatin, which lowers high blood cholesterol.
  • Some species of Penicillium are added to blue cheese. The fungi produce blue-green veins in the cheese and add a distinctive flavour. 
  • Miso is made of soybeans fermented by a fungus called Aspergillus oryzae.
  • Yeasts are used to make bread rise. Unlike other fungi, yeasts generally consist of single cells instead of hyphae.
  • Kombucha is made of tea fermented by yeast and bacteria.
Another important use of fungi is their ability to act as decay organisms. Along with other organisms, such as bacteria, some fungi decompose animal wastes and dead bodies, releasing nutrients into the soil. Fungi can be great recyclers!

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