Fungi Are Our Friends
When you hear the word fungi, what comes to mind
first? Uncomfortable, unpleasant skin or nail infections? A cluster of pale
mushrooms in the woods or in the supermarket produce section? If so, you’re not
alone—for most people, fungi wouldn’t rank among the top 10 must-have items of
this year, or any year.
But just as there are good and bad bacteria, so too are
there good and bad fungi. The Penicillium fungus, for example, naturally
produces the antibiotic penicillin. By growing the fungus in a laboratory, Alexander
Fleming and other scientists were able to separate the penicillin from the mold
and then purify it, making it suitable for human use and saving countless lives
as a result.
That’s just one example of how the much-maligned fungus has
proved itself worthy of appreciation, not something to be avoided. Fungi are
stationary plant-like organisms that don’t have chlorophyll. Since they’re
unable to produce their own food, fungi are reliant on other sources for food.
Some beneficial fungi break down dead matter; some destructive fungi draw
sustenance from living organisms, like trees and crops. Brewer’s yeast, yogurt,
and blue cheese all contain fungi that are beneficial.
Organisms other than humans also \benefit from fungi. Lichen,
which is formed by symbiosis between a fungus and an alga, often grows on
trees. Since the fungus obtains nutrients from the alga it doesn’t take them
from its host (i.e., the tree). Rather, lichen is a source of food for some
animals, including deer and frogs, and some birds use it to help build or line
their nests. Fungi assists trees with communicating with other trees and plants
in the area and sharing resources.
When fungi do dine on other organisms, it isn’t necessarily
detrimental or harmful. By breaking down and decomposing organic matter, fungi
are an essential part in the circle of life. Decomposers—fungi, bacteria, and
invertebrates—release nutrients that would otherwise remain in the tissues of
dead matter. Those nutrients in turn “feed” the ecosystem, which we are
dependent on for life.
So the next time you hear the word fungi, open a
container of yogurt, or spot some lichen on trees, take a moment to appreciate an
essential, hardworking link in the circle of life.