The topic of fungus may not be the most entertaining one you read about today, but it is fascinating. And if you read this post through to the end, you’ll find fungi can also be scary.
Fungi include microorganisms such as yeasts, molds, mushrooms, rusts, smuts, and mildews. They are not plants or animals. They belong to their own kingdom. However, they are more like animals than plants because they gather their food. Most fungi are so small they are invisible to the human eye, yet they play a significant role in our health as well as the environment’s.
Although often thought to be interchangeable with the word mushrooms, mushrooms are actually a small percentage of fungi. Fungi live everywhere including soil, sand, air, on rocks, and on plants. It’s estimated that there are more than 5 million species of fungi. They are adaptable little things, sitting dormant for decades and growing when exposed to prime conditions.
Fungi play an important role in medications such as antibiotics, anticancer drugs, and cholesterol inhibitors. They are significant in cleaning up the environment, decomposing carbon-based materials that have died. In addition, they can absorb and digest environmental contaminants such as petroleum and pesticides. Fungi also are used to make yeasts for alcohol, bread, and cheeses and can be consumed as a meat substitute and protein source.
Depending on our location, we may breathe in up to four spores with every breath and as many as 92,000 each day. This can be a problem for people like me who are allergic to several forms of fungi.
One type of fungi is the stuff of horror movies. The zombie fungi, fungal genus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, can infect ants and take over their behavior. It directs the ants to move to a location that is best for the fungus and then consumes the ant from the inside out while spreading spores to infect more ants so that the cycle continues.
For more information see this page on the University of Oklahoma’s website where much of this information comes from.
*Photos: 1. Giant Puffball, 2. ?