7 Interesting Facts About Fungi

Luminous Fungi
Mycena lampadis is one of several species of bioluminescent fungi. Credit: Lance@ ancelpics/Moment/Getty Images

7 Interesting Facts About Fungi

What do you think of when you think of fungi? Do you think of the mold growing in your shower or mushrooms? Both are types of fungi as fungi can range from unicellular (yeasts and molds) to multicellular organisms (mushrooms) that contain spore-producing fruit bodies for reproduction.

Fungi are eukaryotic organisms that are classified in their own Kingdom, called Fungi.

The cell walls of fungi contain chitin, a polymer that is similar in structure to glucose from which it is derived. Unlike plants, fungi don't have chlorophyll so are not able to make their own food. Fungi typically acquire their nutrients/food by absorption. They release digestive enzymes into the environment that assist in this process.

Fungi are very diverse and have even contributed to improvements in medicine. Let's explore seven interesting facts about fungi.

1) Fungi can cure disease.

Many may be familiar with the antibiotic known as penicillin. Did you know that it was produced from a mold that is a fungus? Around 1929, a doctor in London, England wrote a paper on what he called 'penicillin' which he had derived from the Penicillium notatum mold (now known as Penicillium chrysogenum). It had the ability to kill bacteria. His discovery and research started a chain of events that would lead to the development of many antibiotics that would save countless lives.

Similarly, the antibiotic cyclosporine is a key immunosuppressant and is used in organ transplants.

2) Fungi can also cause disease.

Many diseases can also be caused by fungi. For example, while many associate ringworm with being caused by a worm, it is caused by a fungus. It gets its name from the circular shape of the rash produced.

Athlete's foot is another example of a disease caused by fungi. Many other diseases such as: eye infections, valley fever, and Histoplasmosis are caused by Fungi.

3) Fungi are vital to the environment.

Fungi play a key role in the cycle of nutrients in the environment. They are one of the main decomposers of dead organic matter. Without them, the leaves, dead trees, and other organic matter that build up in the forests wouldn't have their nutrients available for other plants to use. For example, nitrogen is a key component that is released when fungi decompose organic matter.

4) Fungi can last for a long time.

Depending on the conditions, many fungi, like mushrooms, can be dormant for extended periods of time. Some can sit dormant for years and even decades and still have the ability to grow under the right conditions.

5) Fungi can be deadly.

Some fungi are toxic. Some are so toxic that they can cause instant death in animals and humans. Deadly fungi often contain a substance known as amatoxins. Amatoxins typically are very good at inhibiting RNA polymerase II. RNA polymerase II is a necessary enzyme involved in the production of a type of RNA called messenger RNA (mRNA). Messenger RNA plays an important role in DNA transcription and protein synthesis.

Without RNA polymerase II, cell metabolism will stop and cell lysis occurs.

6) Fungi can be used to control pests.

Some species of fungi are able to suppress the growth of insects and nematodes that may cause harm to agricultural crops. Typically the fungi that can have such impacts are part of the group called hyphomycetes.

7) A fungus is the largest living organism on the planet.

A fungus known as the honey mushroom is the largest living organism on the planet. It is believed to be about 2400 years old and covers over 2000 acres. Interestingly enough, it kills trees as it spreads.

There you have it, seven interesting facts about fungi. There are many additional interesting facts about fungi that range from fungi being used to produce the citric acid used in many beverages to fungi being the cause for 'zombie ants'.

Some fungi are bioluminescent and can even glow in the dark. While scientists have classified many of the fungi in nature, it is estimated that there are vast numbers that remain unclassified so their potential uses are likely numerous.