What Are Fungi? Where Do Fungi Come From? Are Fungi Plants or Animals? Are They Good Or Bad In Gardens? Are Fungi Dangerous? And Are Fungi And Fungus The Same Thing?

Before answering What Are Fungi?, let’s go back to the basics. Fungi is the plural of Fungus. So we get one fungus but if there is more than one they are fungi. And the word fungi comes from the Latin and roughly translated means mushrooms. But not all fungi are mushrooms. In fact, arguably none are, as a mushroom is just the fruiting body of a few fungi. Not all fungi produce mushrooms. To say a mushroom is a fungi is like saying an apple is a tree.

So let’s look at what fungi are. People often get this wrong and even dictionaries sometimes get it wrong. For example Collins dictionary wrongly state the following …

“A fungus is a plant that has no flowers, leaves, or green colouring, such as a mushroom or a toadstool”.

Wrong. They aren’t plants

And they aren’t animals either. Fungi are just fungi, nothing more and nothing less. They are a class of organism that is totally separate from plants and animals and have been around for a very long time. Fungi are one of the major Kingdoms that living organisms are divided into .. animals and plants are also kingdoms.

So they aren’t plants or animals, but what is true is, that although distinct, fungi do share some characteristics with both plants and animals.

Characteristics Fungi Share With Plants And Animals

“Eating”

Fungi are heterotrophs. That means they cannot produce their own food like a plant does from sunlight, air and water. Unlike most plants, fungi don’t have chloroplasts or chlorophyll so can’t produce their own food. They need to acquire preformed organic compounds that they can break down in the same way as we break down our food to obtain energy.

But whereas we put food inside us to digest it, fungi tend to put themselves inside of the food and digest it from within. For example fungi will penetrate wood and rot it from within. And yeast, another form of fungus, is at home in wine or beer where they digest the sugars and produce alcohol as a waste product! And in milk products they are used to produce flavours and even colour. Blue cheeses are an example. They are produced by adding penicillium fungi to the cheese.

What About Sex?

The best way to describe the situation is to say it’s complicated. In most cases fungi don’t need to mate to reproduce, but, in some cases they can and do. Yeast for example normally just produce buds that become fully functioning yeast in their own right. And in the right conditions they can rapidly reproduce.

Fungi can choose between two different life cycle stages that determine if they reproduce sexually or asexually. These stages, for those that want to know, are called, teleomorphic or anamorphic and conditions influence which takes precedence. But, as gardeners we don’t need to know this. What we do need to know is how fungi affect our plants and gardens. And in this article I’ll explain a lot more about this. Suffice now to say that without fungi many of our garden plants couldn’t live. When I was a student I was told about legumes, and nitrogen fixing bacteria, as if they were the only microscopic organisms that plants became involved with. However, science moves on and we now know that fungi are essential for many plants. In fact it is essential for our own lives.

And in case you wondered. Fungi produce spores, not seeds. And note certainly don’t go in for live birth. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies that dispense wind dispersed spores. That seems fairly straightforward until we learn that some mushrooms stay underground and have to employ a totally different method of spore dispersal.

Similar to mosses and algae, fungi typically have haploid nuclei. So they produce clones which limit their genetic potential. But fungi have away to ensure genetic mixing that I’ll discuss later in this series.

Cells, Cell Walls And What’s Inside Fungi Cells

Like plants fungi have a cell wall and vacuoles (a membrane-bound vesicle in the cytoplasm. Inside a vacuole is a solution of inorganic and organic molecules. I understand this includes waste products).

Inside the cell wall fungi have a nucleus with chromosomes that contains DNA.

At a basic level I always think about how fungi exist in two forms. I’ve already mentioned the way some fungi, such as yeast, grow by budding. They are single keeled organisms.

Other fungi produce hyphae.

Hyphae grow as tubular, elongated, and thread-like (filamentous) structures, which may contain multiple nuclei and extend by growing at their tips.

And just to complicate the issue some fungi have both hyphal and yeast forms.

What About Locomotion? Can Fungi Move?

Though the tips of hyphae move in the sense of growing through the media the fungi is in its not really locomotion. They can’t just uproot themselves and saunter across a field. Spores can blow on the wind or be transported in other ways and hyphae can extend but fungi aren’t capable of more than this.

Fungi That Light Up The World – Fungal Bioluminescence

In common with a few plant and animal species, more than 70 fungal species have the ability to display bioluminescence. One is called Jack o’ Lantern, Omphalotus illudens, and this fungi’s magic doesn’t stop there. But I’ll explain more about that later.

Have Big Are Fungi? What Size Do They Get?

Ballerina or Pink Waxcap fungi - What Are Fungi?
The rare Ballerina or Pink Waxcap fungi

Many fungi are microscopic. But the fruiting bodies, the mushrooms, can be big. Some are as big as a cauliflower. One was found near me recently, a rare violet coral fungi.

Nearby another relatively rare fungi, the ballerina fungus was also found.  It is much smaller but beautiful.

Size doesn’t just mean cell size though. As I’ll show later, there are fungi that are bigger and heavier than a Blue Whale.

So What Are Fungi?

To put the above in a simpler way think of it like this. Fungi are multicellular, have a cell wall and a nucleus, but no chloroplasts. Fungi can’t really move as they have no mechanisms for locomotion. Fungi range in size from microscopic to very large ( such as mushrooms). Nutrients are acquired by absorption with most nutrients coming from decomposing organic material. However, in symbiotic relationships with plants some nutrients, such as carbon, are provided by plants.

Fungi And Plants

Fungi and plants are inseparable, despite being from different kingdoms within the natural world. Fungi form mutually beneficial relationships with many plants and in many cases even live inside the plants. The association’s can be either ectomycorrhizal or endomycorrhizal and are two types of symbiotic relationships which frequently exist between fungi and the roots of higher plants.

The relationship between fungi and plants is often described as the Wood Wide Web. It is symbiotic because each side usually benefits. Plants frequently benefit from the fungi sourcing them water and nutrients whilst the plants donate carbon to the fungi.

Huge volumes of carbon can be sequestered via this process. It can however be loss again if the soil is disturbed by agricultural ploughing and cultivations or by gardeners digging their plots. It’s one of the reasons I promote and use No Dig as a gardening technique. It’s alas one of the reasons the tRegenerative Agriculture is fast gaining favour.

Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Use of Fungi

Fungi have been used medicinally for generations but it all took a turn in 1929 when Alexander Fleming isolated penicillin from a mould. Though it was 1941 before penicillin was first used to treat a bacterial infection.  Other medicinal products are also derived from fungi and I’ll explain more about them in later articles.

In an age where everyone is aware of immunosuppression its good to know fungi can help. They are used to produce immunosuppressants such as Cyclosporin A.

Fungi and Food

Fungi and food as natural partners in so many ways. Fungi can be eaten of course but it is also used to produce various foods. The fermentation of beers and wines are perhaps the most common. Fungi are also used to produce some cheeses. A prime example would be the various blue cheeses such as stilton and Roquefort. Both use fungi in the ripening process. In essence, fungi are used to decompose the immature cheese and give it its unique and characteristic flavours and appearance.

Fungi are also used to produce food products such as citric and other acids.

Fungi As A Biological Pesticide

Fungi are used as a pesticide more often than most of us realise. I’ll go into the details in a future article. Suffice now to say that fungi can be used to compete with bacteria for nutrients and space, and they can be used to parasitise some insects that eat plants. This in turn reduces the need for insecticides and other pesticides.

Fungi As A Spoiling Agent and Agent of Disease

Fungi, in the form of rusts, smuts etc damage many plants. In the garden we get things such as rust on leeks and other alliums. The rust is actually a fungi!

And the blue mould we see on bread .. its a pencillin mould, that’s to say a fungi.

The Janus Effect: Fungi Two Faces

Ergot is a fungal inaction of cereals. It produces a number of alkaloids that have medicinal uses but can also induce hallucination.

Fungi such as aspergillum cause the disease, Farmer’s Lung. But it is also used for bioremediation.

Bioremediation Using Fungi

Fungi were found growing inside the Chernobyl reactor building and can be used to help clear radioactivity.

Fungi can also be used to degrade environmental organic chemicals and to decrease the risk associated with somer heavy metals and other contaminants.

Plastic waste in out oceans is now high profile. Fungi might be a bioremediation answer longer term. Work in the Netherlands is being conducted to ascertain the ability of marine fungi to break down plastic waste in the sea. 

Fungal conclusions

So far in this article I’ve touched on just a few aspects around fungi, gardening and the environment. To follow are many detailed articles and Fungi Facts that demonstrate how vital fungi are to life on earth.

To further inspire you about the potential; of this Eries of articles check out this video

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