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The good fungi

You may think that there are very few types of fungi but experts think that there may be over 1 million different species of fungi on earth to day!  If you scooped up a teaspoon of earth, you could find about 120,000 fungi! 

You probably see fungi of some sort or other every day.  The most common fungi are mushrooms and truffles (yum!), yeast that is made to make bread or molds and mildew!  Yeasts like Saccharomyces cerevisiae is also called Bakers yeast and it is used in the process of fermentation to make bread.  Yeasts are also involved in the fermentation of wines and beers and in brewing soy sauce which is used in Chinese cooking.  Blue chesses like Cashel blue or Roquefort are injected with certain kinds of fungal spores.  The mold that grows from the fungal spores gives the blue cheeses their colour and yummy taste.  Don’t worry - these fungal spores and molds are not toxic to humans, so they won’t make you sick.

There are lots of things to be thankful to fungi for – besides being tasty they help to keep you and the food you eat healthy!  There are some fungi that are used in medicine.  They kill bacteria that invade your body and produce antibiotics like penicillin.  Antibiotics made from fungi are used to treat nasty diseases like tuberculosis (TB) and leprosy.  Not only that, but they can be used to fight off insects, pests and even other fungi that grow on plants!

Penicillin is the best known antibiotic and it is actually made from a mold!  Penicillin was discovered by the scientist Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928.  He found that mold growing with a colony (a group) of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria was killing them.  It wasn’t long before scientists found out what part of the mold was killing the bacteria and they began to make lots of it and people were able to recover from bacterial infections more easily.  The problem was that bacteria are really very clever.  The more antibiotics that people took, the more the bacteria learnt to get around them so today, there are a lot of bacteria that penicillin used to kill but it cannot kill any more.  The bacteria had adapted to the antibiotic, they are drug-resistant.  New antibiotics are very difficult to find – the best way to make sure that all bacteria don’t become drug-resistant is to:

  • only take antibiotics when you really need them
  • always finish the course of treatment that your doctor gives you, even if you begin to feel better
  • never take antibiotics from someone else or antibiotics that are out of date
  • rememberantibiotics do not work on viruses so there is no point in taking them!  Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them because the can reduce the amount of good bacteria in your body and make you even more likely to get another infection!

Fungi, along with bacteria, are one of the best decomposers of organic material.  Without them, dead plants and animals would just hang around and the nutrients from the dead material would not return to the ground.  Other plants, animals and micro-organisms that rely on that food would also die and the delicate balance of the ecosystem would be lost.  So next time you are out for a walk and see mushrooms, do your best to help to spread these ‘fun guys’ around and help them to help you!


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