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How fungi works?

Fungi have been on earth for millions and millions of years.  They are not a plant even though they can look like plants, nor are they an animal – fungi are actually a really ancient type of vegetable! 

There are, experts think, over 1 million different species of fungi on earth to day!  In a single 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 which are useful but not so pleasant. 

Although some fungi have many cells, they cannot make their own food like plants do as they do not have chlorophyll (plants use chlorophyll to make food from the light of the sun).  Fungi are parasites and grow on plants, animals, humans, dead and decaying organic matter, anywhere, in fact, where it is warm and damp!  They get their food by making enzymes that digest food from the surface they are growing on and absorbing the digested nutrients through their cell walls.  Fungi mainly absorb water and digest sugars and starches which they use to grow. 

Fungi have adapted to many different environments and can be found in the air, in the ground, in water, on plants, on you!  All of these places provide the nutrients, warmth and moisture fungi need.  Some fungi have adapted to grow in the desert where water is scarce, in very cold parts of the world and in fresh or seawater where there is too much or the wrong kind of water.  Fungi have been around so long, they have adapted to grow almost anywhere.   

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.

Fungi are pretty simple structures really.  Mushrooms, toadstools, puff balls and the hard fungus you see growing like plates on the sides of trees, all have the same structure.  They grow in bunches of filaments (which look like sewing thread) called hyphae, although you cannot always see this.  The hyphae grow together to form mycelium which can form a fruiting body which is the part of the mushroom you can see.    


Fungi can’t move about, they stay where they grow, so how do they make more fungi?  Underneath the fruiting body of the mushroom, the bit you can see that looks like an umbrella, there are rows of ‘gills’.  In these gills, tiny microscopic spores are produced.  Spores are the seeds for the next generation of fungi and they are carried to new places by the wind and rain.  When the spores come into contact with the right growing conditions – generally somewhere there is food, moisture and warmth - they germinate (start to grow) and break through the surface and grow. 

Fungal spores are spread in different ways.  They can be carried by the air, on animals, on your clothing, by traffic, washed away to new places by the rain or rivers…even when you breathe, you are breathing in the tiny spores!  When you cough or sneeze, it disperses the spores in new places and if the conditions are right, they will begin to grow.  If the fungus doesn’t have the right conditions for growth, they hibernate (become dormant) until the right conditions come along or until they are moved to a better spot!

Did you know…?

The study of fungi is called mycology.

The largest known organism on earth is a mushroom!  This ‘humongous fungus’ is 3.5 miles wide and lives mostly underground in Oregon, USA.  It is thought to be over 2,4000 years old! 


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