24.1 Characteristics of Fungi
Fungi are eukaryotic organisms that appeared on land more than 450 million years ago. They are heterotrophs and contain neither photosynthetic pigments such as chlorophyll, nor organelles such as chloroplasts. Because fungi feed on decaying and dead matter, they are saprobes. Fungi are important decomposers that release essential elements into the environment. External enzymes digest nutrients that are absorbed by the body of the fungus, which is called a thallus. A thick cell wall made of chitin surrounds the cell. Fungi can be unicellular as yeasts, or develop a network of filaments called a mycelium, which is often described as mold. Most species multiply by asexual and sexual reproductive cycles and display an alternation of generations. Another group of fungi do not have a sexual cycle. Sexual reproduction involves plasmogamy (the fusion of the cytoplasm), followed by karyogamy (the fusion of nuclei). Meiosis regenerates haploid individuals, resulting in haploid spores.
24.2 Classifications of Fungi
Chytridiomycota (chytrids) are considered the most primitive group of fungi. They are mostly aquatic, and their gametes are the only fungal cells known to have flagella. They reproduce both sexually and asexually; the asexual spores are called zoospores. Zygomycota (conjugated fungi) produce non-septated hyphae with many nuclei. Their hyphae fuse during sexual reproduction to produce a zygospore in a zygosporangium. Ascomycota (sac fungi) form spores in sacs called asci during sexual reproduction. Asexual reproduction is their most common form of reproduction. Basidiomycota (club fungi) produce showy fruiting bodies that contain basidia in the form of clubs. Spores are stored in the basidia. Most familiar mushrooms belong to this division. Fungi that have no known sexual cycle were classified in the form phylum Deuteromycota, which the present classification puts in the phyla Ascomycota and Basidiomycota. Glomeromycota form tight associations (called mycorrhizae) with the roots of plants.
24.3 Ecology of Fungi
Fungi have colonized nearly all environments on Earth, but are frequently found in cool, dark, moist places with a supply of decaying material. Fungi are saprobes that decompose organic matter. Many successful mutualistic relationships involve a fungus and another organism. Many fungi establish complex mycorrhizal associations with the roots of plants. Some ants farm fungi as a supply of food. Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a photosynthetic organism, usually an alga or cyanobacterium. The photosynthetic organism provides energy derived from light and carbohydrates, while the fungus supplies minerals and protection. Some animals that consume fungi help disseminate spores over long distances.
24.4 Fungal Parasites and Pathogens
Fungi establish parasitic relationships with plants and animals. Fungal diseases can decimate crops and spoil food during storage. Compounds produced by fungi can be toxic to humans and other animals. Mycoses are infections caused by fungi. Superficial mycoses affect the skin, whereas systemic mycoses spread through the body. Fungal infections are difficult to cure.
24.5 Importance of Fungi in Human Life
Fungi are important to everyday human life. Fungi are important decomposers in most ecosystems. Mycorrhizal fungi are essential for the growth of most plants. Fungi, as food, play a role in human nutrition in the form of mushrooms, and also as agents of fermentation in the production of bread, cheeses, alcoholic beverages, and numerous other food preparations. Secondary metabolites of fungi are used as medicines, such as antibiotics and anticoagulants. Fungi are model organisms for the study of eukaryotic genetics and metabolism.