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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.