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If you ever have the experience of working in a fast-food restaurant, you'll quickly learn that the process of feeding the masses has three phases. First, the food must be produced, second, it must be eaten, and third, the remnants must be cleaned up. It's a messy job, but someone has to do it.
Likewise, in the realm of life, there are three main jobs when it comes to food - production, comsumption and decomposition. Our focus on this page is the third of the groups - the decomposers. Although all kingdoms participate in all three processes, some do a better job than others. Plants (and plant-like protists) are top-notch food producers. The animal kingdom kingdom (do I need to add the animal-like protists?) consumes nicely. That leaves the clean-up to the fungi. They are the ultimate in recycling technology.
Fungi has another extremely impotant job. Fungi at the tips of plant roots breaks soil into nutrients. This allows plants to grow, which allows people and animals to eat, which allows this whole cycle to keep going.
Scientists divide the fungi into several phyla. They are divided based on what is known about their reprodctive strategies. Some unusual individuals are grouped together. The major phyla are:
There is also an oddity in the kingdoms of life - a cooperative group. Algae and fungi have teamed up at last to form another organism. Is it called the algi-fun? The Fun-algi? No, they're called:
Let's take a brief look at each of these.
I can almost guarantee you've eaten fungus. Even if you detest mushrooms (see basisiomycota), you've probably enjoyed a slice of bread now and then. You know the yeast which makes it rise? It's a fungus. The yeasts used in food preparation are from this phylum.
The ascomycota are known as sac fungi because their spores are enclosed in cases or sacs. These fungi also have the ability to eject their spores in a rather violent manner. This makes them superb at spreading their reproductive capacities. Not bad for a lowly fungus.
Yeasts, as shown in the picture, are single-celled fungi. They are quite good at turning sugars into more yeast cells. They produce gasses as a waste product, as well as alcohol. Yeasts are used to ferment beverages and leaven (raise) bread.
Most ascomycetes don't get very large or impressive, but what they lack in size they make up for in value. Two fungi which are used as food are the morel and the truffle. The truffle looks like a chunk of dirt, but it is reported that the flavor is fabulous. Morels look a lot like ordinary mushrooms, but with fancy caps. Hopefully, the picture does it justice.
There are more than valuable fungi in this phylum. There are some of these which cause diseases and distruction. Ascomycetes incllude the powdery mildews, the common black molds and the green molds. These may seem a little disgusting, but they're just doing their job.
The most familiar of the fungi is the mushroom. The part of the mushroom we are most familiar with looks like a little umbrella. It is composed of a stalk and a cap. In actuality, this is only the reproductive structure of the mushroom. The majority of the fungus is under the ground. This is representative of what we know about fungi - we know the surface stuff, but we have to scratch the surface if we want to get to know fungi really well.
Mushrooms play a key role in the world of life. These amazing organisms break down old organic material into smaller parts. The molecules are then usable by the fungus and by the plants. Fungi may be found anywhere there is soil, and there may be some mushrooms growing in a nearby patch of grass.
But basidiomycotans are more than just mushrooms. There are disease causing fungi here too. Plants can get "rusts" or "smuts" from these fungi. By the way, another name for basidiomycota is club fungi.
The puffballs are a fun club fungi. If you're walking through a forest and see a lump of white on the ground, you may want to step on it, just for fun. Puffballs release their spores when stepped on, nearly exploding in the process. Some puffballs are edible, but don't ever eat one unless you know which is which.
Now, regarding wild mushrooms, be warned that trying to eat them is dangerous. Long term mushroom hunters are always careful and cautious. Mushrooms range from the edible to the deadly, with everything in between. There are boletes and chanterelles, which are highly sought-after, the common mushrooms you buy in grocery stores, hallucinogenic mushrooms and deadly mushrooms. Never, EVER try a mushroom if you aren't positive it's safe. And a final word on the hallucinogenic ones - they can be quite deadly. Foolish people die every year trying them. As with all mushrooms, when in doubt, don't.
Most of the members of the Chytrid group are unicellular. They may seem unimpressive to look at, but there is a lot of information from this phylum. It is believed that the ancestors of all fungi resembled modern chytrids. These guys have a lot in common with fungi-like protists as well.
Humans don't usually take notice of the chytrids. This is partially because they spend their lives in the water. It goes about its life cycle without bothering Homo sapiens too much. Occasionally, it can cause potato diseases and a corn disease called "brown spot of maize," but if you run into this fungi, it will most likely be in a science lab.
Because of its one-cellular-ness (and a couple other reasons), scientists are now grouping the chytrids among the protists. I probably should too, but I like throwing them in the fungi 'cause you get the nice A,B,C,D,Z effect when it's alphabetized.
Honestly, these guys don't quite qualify as their own phylum. They are a random collection of a bunch of different fungi. All of these have one thing in common though - they haven't been observed to reproduce sexually. Because of this, they have been given the name of imperfect fungi. It's a good thing they don't get their feelings hurt by that one!
In spite of their nickname, these little cells aren't at a loss. What they lack in sexual ability they make up for in asexual reproduction. It may be the motto of these fungi to "divide and conquer," because that's what they do best.
Some of the deuteromycota cause some nasty problems for people. Not only do they cause serious plant diseases, but the deuteromycota have learned to live in and on humans.
Ever hear of ringworm? It's not a worm at all. It's a fungal infection. It's caused by the same fungi which leads to athlete's foot. That's not all this group of fungi can do. This is the group responsible for many unpleasant fungal infections, and it can, under the right circumstances, be lethal. When the spores of this group get into the lung, they can cause severe pulmonary (lung) infections. There are caves where this fungi grows in the guano. (That's the poop on the cave floor.) Inhaling this fungi has caused people to die. Now THAT'S a nasty way to go.
Before you go destroy this group of fungi, you should also know that these deuteromycotans have saved tons of human lives as well. Penicillin is a drug made from the Penicillium fungus. Additionally, the drug cyclosporin is made from a deuteromycotan. This drug makes organ transplants far more successful.
The zygomycota are considered to be an intermediate fungus. They aren't simple, like the chytrids, but they aren't complex and large like the others. They're just your average fungi.
Most of the zygos (forgive me if I abbreviate) seem simple, but when you view them under a microscope, you can tell how complex they really are. If you're interested in cultivating this fungi, leave a piece of bread in a plastic bag on a counter. It helps if there is moisture in the bag. Eventually you'll get a black mold growing. Very likely, you have zygomycota.
The zygos are known for their zygospore - a thick-walled spore which is resistant to drying out. This spore will spring to life when conditions are right. This usually means that the surface must be damp and contain nutrients.
When a plant is damp and begins to go bad, we say the plant is rotting. Rot is actually fungal growth. The fungi has started to live on the plant and cause the breakdown of tissues. Not fun to bite into a moldy anything. How does the mold spores get there? Sometimes they're carried through the air. Often they're carried by insects. Zygos and insects have teamed up rather nicely.
Be grateful for this fungi though. It is responsible for the breakdown of dung (poop). Fungi converts dung back into usable nutrients.
Wouldn't it be cool if there was a half-plant, half-human? Or what about a cow-mushroom mix? (Mmmm - flavored steaks.) That would be pretty weird, eh? Well, the weird has happened. Meet the lichens. Lichens are an unusual partnership between a fungi and an algae. They have teamed up to create a super-organism, and one that's darned hard to classify into only one kingdom.
A lichen is mostly composed of fungus, but there are little protists which have teamed up, weaving themselves among the fibers. Occasionally, it's a moneran in the form of cyanobacteria, but mostly it's green algae that's living there. Because of this, lichens are often, but not always, green fungi.
Because there is a partnership, both the fungal part of the lichen and the green part benefit. The green part produces food through photosynthesis. The fungal part is able to decompose matter to get nutrients. Together, they're capable of feeding each other in rough times.
Because lichens are so innovative, they have been called "nature's pioneers." They live on rocks and trees and are some of the first colonizers. They break down nutrients enough so other organisms can move in.
Return to the overview.