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A FEW FACTS ABOUT FUNGI

1. In the classification of living things the FUNGI are now recognized as a separate kingdom.

2. It is estimated that there are over a MILLION species of FUNGI but only about 10% have been officially described in the scientific literature.

3. As agents of PLANT DISEASE, FUNGI cause annual crop losses in excess of THREE BILLION dollars annually in North America.

4. Along with the plants themselves, FUNGI are THE major players in the CARBON CYCLE.

A. SAPROPHYTIC FUNGI are the primary agents responsible for the biodegradation of plants and woody debris (cellulose and lignified cellulose). EIGHTY-FIVE BILLION tons of carbon is returned annually to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide by decay of cellulose and lignified cellulose. Most of this is by fungi.

B. MYCORRHIZAL FUNGI form intimate associations (MUTUALISTIC SYMBIOSIS) with the roots of higher plants. The fungal hyphae function in place of root hairs for the absorption of water and minerals. These mycorrhizal fungi can also protect the roots from attack by other fungi. Each forest tree has hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hyphae supplying it with water and inorganic salts. In return the tree supplies the fungus with sugars (carbohydrates) manufactured in its leaves.

5. BEVERAGES. The average person consumes beverages produced by fungi on a daily basis. All the citric acid used in soft drinks, candies, artificial lemon juice, baked goods etc. (check the labels) is produced industrially by fungus fermentation using Aspergillus niger. The yeast fungus (Saccharomyces cereviseae) is used in fermentation processes that result in the production of beers, wines and spirits (billions of gallons!)

6. OTHER FOOD PRODUCTS. The yeast fungus Saccharomcyes is also used in the leavening of bread and other baked products. The blue mould, Penicillium, is used in the ripening process to prepare speciality cheeses such as blue cheeses e.g. Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton etc. and soft cheeses such as Camembert and Brie.

7. ANTIBIOTICS from FUNGI

There are a number of important antibiotics produced industrially by fungal fermentation for use as medicines in humans and animals. These include penicillin by Penicillium chrysogenum, cephalosporin by Acremonium (=Cephalosporium), griseofulvin by Penicillium griseofulvin etc.

8. ANTI-REJECTION DRUGS

The anti-rejection drug CYCLOSPORINE is in large part responsible for the current success in organ transplants. It is produced by the FUNGUS Tolyplocladium.

9. ALLERGENS

We breathe in spores of FUNGI on a daily basis. The so-called clean country air may contain as many as 10,000 fungal spores per cubic metre. Also fungi grow very nicely in and around houses. Fungi sporulating in basements and bathrooms can become a significant component of house dust and a major problem for those with mould allergies.

Those who are prone to allergies can become sensitized to many one of a large number of fungal species. Only those that reach significant levels in the air and that are of fairly common occurrence are important as human allergens. These include Penicillium, Aspergillus, Alternaria and Cladosporium.

10. FUNGI and RELIGION

There is evidence to suggest that some religions are based on prehistoric mushrooms cults that were incorporated into religious rites by the shamans of these primitive tribes.

11. FUNGUS PROTEIN

In future years FUNGI may be used to produce protein for human consumption. Some years ago ICI (Great Britain) developed and marketed fungal protein as a meat substitute. The day of the Fungusburger is at hand! Although, to be honest, I haven’t heard much about this for some years.

12. FOREST SOILS

In forest soils other than plant roots the FUNGI are the dominant life forms. It is estimated that the FUNGUS biomass (weight of living stuff) is 90% of the total. All the rest together including nematodes, rotifers, bacteria, protozoa, earthworms, snails, insects, insect larvae, etc weigh the other 10%. Under the ground there is a network of fungal hyphae stretching across our land. The thousands of species of mushrooms found in the forest are the fruitbodies of some of these fungi. But remember most fungi are microscopic and are invisible to our eyes.

13. AGRICULTURAL SOILS

In agricultural soils the biomass of FUNGI is equal to about 1250 kg per hectare and equals the weight of all other groups combined. That is to say there is living stuff in the soil equal to the weight of about 50 sheep per hectare of land and half of that is FUNGUS.

14.  STREAM  ECOLOGY

In streams and rivers most of the energy comes from wind blown leaves and plant debris arriving at the stream from outside (allochthonus).   Only a small component comes from the resident aquatic plants and algae.   The plant debris is high in carbohydrate but low in nitrogen (high C/N ratio).  Aquatic fungi colonize the leaves and lower the C:N and make them more palatable (nutritionally useful) to detritus feeding arthropods (such as Gammarus) that are at the base of the foodchain.

15. DESPITE ALL OF THE ABOVE, MOST FOREST RESEARCH STATIONS IN CANADA DON’T HAVE A MYCOLOGIST NOR DO MOST BIOLOGY DEPARTMENTS AT CANADIAN UNIVERSITIES!