The Importance of Fungi
Fungi are one of the most important groups of organisms on the planet. This is easy to overlook, given their largely hidden, unseen actions and growth. They are important in an enormous variety of ways.
Fungi, together with bacteria, are responsible for most of the recycling which returns dead material to the soil in a form in which it can be reused. Without fungi, these recycling activities would be seriously reduced. We would effectively be lost under piles many metres thick, of dead plant and animal remains.
Mycorrhizae and plant growth
Fungi are vitally important for the good growth of most plants, including crops, through the development of mycorrhizal associations. As plants are at the base of most food chains, if their growth was limited, all animal life, including human, would be seriously reduced through starvation.
Fungi are also important directly as food for humans. Many mushrooms are edible and different species are cultivated for sale worldwide. While this is a very small proportion of the actual food that we eat, fungi are also widely used in the production of many foods and drinks. These include cheeses, beer and wine, bread, some cakes, and some soya bean products.
While a great many wild fungi are edible, it can be difficult to correctly identify them. Some mushrooms are deadly if they are eaten. Fungi with names such as 'Destroying Angel' and 'Death Cap' give us some indication that it would not be a terribly good idea to eat them! In some countries, collecting wild mushrooms to eat is a popular activity. It is always wise to be totally sure that what you have collected is edible and not a poisonous look-a-like.
Penicillin, perhaps the most famous of all antibiotic drugs, is derived from a common fungus called Penicillium. Many other fungi also produce antibiotic substances, which are now widely used to control diseases in human and animal populations. The discovery of antibiotics revolutionized health care worldwide.
Some fungi which parasitise caterpillars have also been traditionally used as medicines. The Chinese have used a particular caterpillar fungus as a tonic for hundreds of years. Certain chemical compounds isolated from the fungus may prove to be useful treatments for certain types of cancer.
A fungus which parasitises Rye crops causes a disease known as Ergot. The fungus can occur on a variety of grasses. It produces small hard structures, known as sclerotia. These sclerotia can cause poisoning in humans and animals which have eaten infected material. However, these same sclerotia are also the source of a powerful and important drug which has uses in childbirth.
Fungi such as the Chinese caterpillar fungus, which parasitise insects, can be extremely useful for controlling insect pests of crops. The spores of the fungi are sprayed on the crop pests. Fungi have been used to control Colorado potato beetles, which can devastate potato crops. Spittlebugs, leaf hoppers and citrus rust mites are some of the other insect pests which have been controlled using fungi. This method is generally cheaper and less damaging to the environment than using chemical pesticides.
Fungal parasites may be useful in biocontrol, but they can also have enormous negative consequences for crop production. Some fungi are parasites of plants. Most of our common crop plants are susceptible to fungal attack of one kind or another. Spore production and dispersal is enormously efficient in fungi and plants of the same species crowded together in fields are ripe for attack. Fungal diseases can on occasion result in the loss of entire crops if they are not treated with antifungal agents.
Fungi can also parasitise domestic animals causing diseases, but this is not usually a major economic problem. A wide range of fungi also live on and in humans, but most coexist harmlessly. Athletes foot and Candida infections are examples of human fungal infections.
It has already been noted that fungi play a major role in recycling organic material. The fungi which make our bread and jam go mouldy are only recycling organic matter, even though in this case, we would prefer that it didn't happen! Fungal damage can be responsible for large losses of stored food, particularly food which contains any moisture. Dry grains can usually be stored successfully, but the minute they become damp, moulds are likely to render them inedible. This is obviously a problem where large quantities of food are being produced seasonally and then require storage until they are needed.
Looking at the above list, it is clear that fungi play a role in just about every part of our daily lives!