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Fungi

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A fungus is any member of a large group of eukaryotic organisms that includes microorganisms such as yeasts and molds, as well as the more familiar mushrooms. The Fungi are classified as a kingdom that is separate from plants and animals. The discipline of biology devoted to the study of fungi is known as mycology, which is often regarded as a branch of botany, even though genetic studies have shown that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Fungi reproduce via spores, which are often produced on specialized structures or in fruiting bodies, such as the head of a mushroom. Abundant worldwide, most fungi are inconspicuous to the naked eye because of the small size of their structures, and their cryptic lifestyles in soil, on dead matter, and as symbionts of plants, animals, or other fungi. Fungi perform an essential role in the decomposition of organic matter and have fundamental roles in nutrient cycling and exchange. They have long been used as a direct source of food, such as mushrooms and truffles, as a leavening agent for bread, and in fermentation of various food products, such as wine, beer, and soy sauce. Since the 1940s, fungi have been used for the production of antibiotics, and, more recently, various enzymes produced by fungi are used industrially and in detergents. Fungi are also used as biological agents to control weeds and pests. Many species produce bioactive compounds called mycotoxins, such as alkaloids and polyketides, that are toxic to animals including humans. The fruiting structures of a few species are consumed recreationally or in traditional ceremonies as a source of psychotropic compounds. Fungi can break down manufactured materials and buildings, and become significant pathogens of humans and other animals. Losses of crops due to fungal diseases or food spoilage can have a large impact on human food supplies and local economies. Despite their importance on human affairs, little is known of the true biodiversity of Kingdom Fungi, which has been estimated at around 1.5 million species, with about 5% of these having been formally classified.

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Suillus brevipes
Suillus brevipes is a species of fungus in the Boletaceae family. First described by American mycologists in the late 1800s, it is commonly known as the stubby-stalk or the short-stemmed slippery Jack. The fruit bodies (mushrooms) produced by the fungus are characterized by a chocolate to reddish-brown cap covered with a sticky layer of slime, and a short whitish stem that does not have a partial veil. The cap can reach a diameter of about 10 cm (3.9 in), while the stem is up to 6 cm (2.4 in) long and 2 cm (0.8 in) thick. Like other bolete mushrooms, S. brevipes produces spores in a vertically arranged layer of spongy tubes with openings that form a layer of small yellowish pores on the underside of the cap.

Suillus brevipes grows in a mycorrhizal association with various species of coniferous trees, especially lodgepole and ponderosa pine. The fungus is found throughout North America, and has been introduced to several other countries via transplanted pines. In the succession of mycorrhizal fungi associated with the regrowth of jack pine after clearcutting or wildfires, S. brevipes is a multi-stage fungus, found during all stages of tree development. The mushrooms are edible, and are high in the essential fatty acid linoleic acid.

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Urnula craterium mature.jpg
Urnula craterium is a species of cup fungus in the family Sarcosomataceae. It is parasitic on oak and various other hardwood species; it is also saprobic, as the fruiting bodies develop on dead wood after it has fallen to the ground. Appearing in early spring, its distinctive goblet-shaped and dark-colored fruiting bodies have earned it the common names devil's urn and the gray urn. The distribution of U. craterium includes eastern North America, Europe, and Asia. It produces bioactive compounds that can inhibit the growth of other fungi. The asexual (imperfect), or conidial stage of U. craterium is the plant pathogenic species Conoplea globosa, known to cause a canker disease of oak and several other hardwood tree species.

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Clavulinopsis corallinorosacea.jpg
Credit: JJ Harrison
Clavulinopsis corallinorosacea, a species of coral fungus, photographed in Mt Field National Park, Tasmania, Australia.

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