Fungi are living things that are one of the five classification systems of organisms. The study of fungi is called mycology. Mycologists look at different types of fungus and categorize them in various specifications, such as those that are helpful and those that cause disease. Mycologists also discover ways to get rid of harmful fungi that have infected people or taken over space; they determine the living conditions to grow fungi, and they look for new uses of fungi to help people.
Fungus is found everywhere and serves many interesting purposes. Truffles are considered a delicacy and are dug from the ground in parts of Europe, bringing a very high price for those who want to eat them. Some fungi work naturally in the environment to decompose organic matter, providing people with composting sites and reducing leaves and waste. There are even types of fungi used in ancient Eastern medicines that treat various ailments; their healing properties are so effective they are considered magical.
Fungi do not have any way of making their own food, as plants do. In order to continue growing, they then must find a source to get their nutrients. They can grow well in dark places and do not need light as a source of life. Many types of fungi are similar to plants in appearance, but there are also many that do not resemble plants at all. For example, the mushroom is a common fungus that many people think of. Mushrooms look a little bit like plants but they must grow in an area where they can take in food from another source. The source of food can come from almost anywhere. Some fungus, such as mold, grows on surfaces or is found in food. Another type of fungus, yeast, grows in food by consuming sugar or other nutrients. There have been over 200,000 types of fungi that have been identified and classified, and there are many more that are yet to be discovered.
The study of fungi is very diverse and serves to help people in hundreds of different ways. Many people think negatively about fungus. Fungal infections can cause disease in the skin, mouth, or even the bloodstream and the heart. People can get very sick and require medication to eliminate these infections. Fungus can take over parts of our homes, including mold in the walls, requiring cleanup. When food is leftover and not cared for, fungus grows on it in the form of mold and spoils the food. Mold dust also causes allergic reactions in people, making them miserable with symptoms of watery eyes and cough when they are near. Many types of fungus are poisonous when consumed, and people have been known to become very sick by eating a mushroom and assuming it was harmless.
Fungi also have many good purposes, too. If it were not for certain types of fungi, many thousands of people would not be alive today. Penicillin was an early type of antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections. Penicillin is named for the mold that it was originally made from. This fungus, Penicillium notatum, was found to impede the growth of bacteria. It later was developed into an antibiotic that saved many lives. Fungi are the bases for other types of medication, such as steroids, which treat different types of illness. Yeast causes bread to rise and allows wine to ferment. Yogurt has a fungal culture and is considered a healthy food that also can regulate the digestive system.
Fungi are so diverse that they cannot be described in exactly one way. The study of mycology has helped thousands of people and changed many lives because of the fascinating growth of fungus. While nature continues to serve its purposes, growing and changing, there is, even more, to be discovered about what these are and what they can do.
General Fungi Resources
The Mycological Society of America: Advancing the science of mycology.
Pilgrim Firs: Definition and many photographs of mushrooms and fungus.
American Chestnut Cooperator’s Foundation: Information about blight fungus.
Center for Medical Mycology: Science focusing on fungal use for health.
Doctor Fungus: Taxonomy and nomenclature.
Mycobank: Fungal database.
Warts and Fungal Infections
Are warts a fungus? While there is a similarity, warts are viral infections caused by HPV. In the summer, fungal infections of the skin can tend to flare up and look similar to warts. Common fungus infections are ringworm, yeast infection, jock itch and athlete’s foot. Just like with warts where you can get HPV from exposure, public showers and other similar places are a hot spot for exposure. More on warts: warts.org.
International Fungal Biology Conference: Frontiers in fungal biology.
The Biology Project: Resource for learning biology.
American Phytopathological Society: Studying diseases in plants.
University of California: Plant disease management.
Facts about Fungi: Collecting and identifying mushrooms.
Department of Conservation: Edible and poisonous mushrooms.
Mycophagy: Best edible mushrooms.
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service: Mushroom cultivation and marketing.
Growing Mushrooms: Small-scale mushroom cultivation.
Teaching and Learning About Fungi
North American Mycological Association: Class activities and projects.
Collections of Fungi
Field Museum: Fungi collection.
Arizona Mycota Project: Mycological herbaria.