Funky fungi facts

Fungi are certainly funky, but have you ever wondered what they are? We’ve probably all heard about the group of fungi called mushrooms, but there are around 1.5 million fungi species that are incredibly diverse and are found in every habitat, including on your body! Common types of fungi include conks, corals, jellies, puffballs, stinkhorns, morels, cups, truffles, yeasts and rusts.

Fungi are so special that they make up their own separate group of organisms called a kingdom – there are only five of these on the planet (though this traditional number is debated). The cell walls of fungi contain chitin, a compound that provides structure. This is an individual trait which distinguishes them from the other organisms. They belong to neither the plant nor animal kingdoms, partly because they cannot move, unlike animals, and they cannot photosynthesise, unlike plants.

Large white mushroom

However fungi do share similarities with plants and animals, for example chitin is also present in the exoskeletons of animals, such as insects and crabs. It’s also similar in structure to cellulose – a compound found in the cell walls of plants. These linked traits give evidence that fungi, plants and animals share common ancestors, as well as the fact that all three of these kingdoms are mainly multicellular and possess cells with membrane-bound nulcei.

Perhaps surprisingly, fungi are more closely related to animals than plants when you look at their DNA. Evidence of their relation can be seen when you consider where animals and fungi sit in the food chain. They don’t sit at the bottom like the majority of plants. Animals and fungi consume organisms to obtain their energy in contrast to plants which produce energy from sun and water. Another character trait of fungi is that they store excess energy as glycogen like animals. In contrast, plants store their energy as starch.

Although fungi obviously don’t have mouths and a digestive systems like animals. The majority of them are saprophytes, which means they obtain their nutrients from dead matter. They do this by secreting enzymes from their bodies, like the ones used to digest food in our stomachs, which break down food into small pieces that can be absorbed.

DSCF5233

If I asked you to picture a fungus you might imagine an umbrella-like structure growing up from the ground, but this is often just the fruiting body of the fungi rather than its dominant structure that lies beneath the soil. Fungi consist of masses of tiny filaments called hyphae which form a spindly, tangled mass called a mycelium. Some of these filaments differentiate during reproduction to produce fruiting bodies that release spores, but some fungi are just single cells, like yeasts.

Various fungi species can form very interesting relationships with plants and animals. For example, lichen are composed of fungal filaments amoung which grow an algae and/or cyanobacterium species, forming a symbiotic (close and long-term) relationship. Their relationship is often mutualistic, which means both organisms benefit. In this case the fungus absorbs food produced by the algae and/or cyanopbacteria, and in return it provides shelter and shares the moisture and nutrients it gathers from the environment.

Orange fungus

Many insects cultivate fungi for food, such as leafcutter ants. The fungus benefits from receiving a continuous food source of leaves and the protection of the ant nest, and the ants eat the fungus. This is another example of a mutualistic symbiotic relationship.

Fungi thrive in the autumn as they enjoy the wet but mild conditions. At this time of year you’ll find all sorts of fungi species scattered about forest as they produce their fruiting bodies of all colours, shapes and sizes. Next time you come across a fantastic fungi, think about these fungi funky facts and remember there are many more to be discovered!

Here are some brilliant fungi photos you’ve tweeted recently:

Photos in text (not in Twitter posts) taken by author, ©Kate Dey, 2014.

BBC Nature, Fungi, [online], available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Fungus, accessed 12 November 2014.

BBC Nature, Leaf-cutter ants, [online], available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Atta_%28genus%29, accessed 12 November 2014.

Biology Reference, Fungi, [online], available at: http://www.biologyreference.com/Fo-Gr/Fungi.html, accessed 11 November 2014.

RBG Kew, Fungi, [online], available at: http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/fungi, accessed 11 November 2014.

Royse. D. J., 2003, Encyclopaedia of Food and Culture, [online], available at: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Fungi.aspx, accessed 12 November 2014.

The British Lichen Society, [online], available at: http://www.thebls.org.uk/about-lichens/what-is-a-lichen, accessed 12 November 2014.

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Kate Dey

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