By Madeleine Stiffler
Mushrooms, cordyceps, mycelium, mold, yeast—welcome to the world of fungi! All mushrooms are fungi, but mushrooms are not like mildew or other types of fungi. Mushrooms are, however, the most popular of the eukaryotic organisms. Unlike conventional plants with foliage or flora which typically produce and reproduce via seeds, fungi produce spores (airborne bacteria) to reproduce and sometimes to even defend themselves. Actually, fungi and mushrooms are more related to animals than plants and they also play an incredibly important role in our everyday lives, despite being too small to see with the naked eye most of the time.
According to the first large-scale assessment of the world’s fungi, the fungal kingdom was found to be most vital to sustaining life on earth. Yet, more than 90% of the estimated 3.8 million fungi in the world are still unknown to science. To better understand the impact of fungi professor Kathy Willis, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, states “they’re really weird organisms with the most bizarre life cycle. And yet when you understand their role in the Earth’s ecosystem, you realize that they underpin life on Earth.” Most people are familiar with edible mushrooms or the common mold used to create penicillin, but fungi have an incredibly wide range of vital roles from helping plants draw water and nutrients to medicines that can lower cholesterol or enable organ transplants. To add, futuristic fungi have been found to be able to break down plastics and generate new variations of biofuel as well as being used as replacements for polystyrene foam, leather, and numerous building materials.
Clearly, the uses of fungi are wide-ranging and diverse… and also delicious. About 350 species are consumed as foods including truffles, marmite, copious cheeses, quorn, etc. All types of fungi are also being discovered nearly everyday—some even being discovered from a human fingernail. Unfortunately, the beauty of fungi is often overlooked as a result of their sometimes unsettling appearance or because of unfamiliarity regarding their toxicity. Becoming knowledgeable about such an expansive species that is ultimately changing and improving multiple areas of life everyday is unquestionably something everyone should be encouraged to do—it never hurts to learn about some funky fungi!