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A few fungi factoids

by Feb. 7, 2011, 5:24 PM

Toadstools in early morning light (Photo by Guy Nicholls, iStock)

For some reason, fungi don’t get no respect.

Despite the fact that genetically they are more closely related to animals than to plants and despite the fact that they play an absolutely critical role in the environment, most people don’t give them much thought.

Evolutionary biologists here at Vanderbilt have discovered that fungi are telling us something important and surprising about the nature of evolution. Read more about it in Discovery of jumping gene cluster tangles tree of life.

But there are a number of other less scientific reasons why mushrooms, yeasts, lichens, slimes and molds deserve our respect:

  • Without special fungi that colonize their roots, trees could not grow much taller than 3.5 feet.
  • Bread, yogurt, beer and wine, sake, soy sauce and miso, Camembert Brie and blue cheeses are all made with fungi.
  • You probably associate citric acid with oranges, lemons and grapefruit but more than 99 percent of this widespread preservative used in soft drinks and other foods is produced by a fungus.
  • In 2007, a 3.3 pound fungus (a white truffle) sold for $330,000 at auction.
  • People once thought that mushrooms growing in a circle in forests and meadows followed the path made by fairies dancing in a ring. We now know that these fairy rings are caused by a fungus that grows underground. As it spreads outward, the mushrooms spring up just behind its outer edge. One ring formed in France is almost a half mile in diameter and scientists think it is about 700 years old.
Penicillium mold
Penicillium mold (the source of penicillin) growing on the surface of a rotten lemon (Photo by Brian Maudsley, iStock)
  • In 1929 by the English doctor Alexander Fleming isolated the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin, from the blue mold used to make blue cheeses. It was called a “miracle drug” because it could cure people of many once-fatal bacterial infections.
  • Leaf-cutting ants in Central and South America create their food supply by growing fungi in underground gardens. The ants feed the fungi by cutting out small disks from leaves and carrying them back to the nest. The ants cannot digest the cellulose in the leaves but they crush up the leaves and add their saliva to produce a paste that they feed to the fungi. The fungi convert the paste, cellulose and all, into carbohydrates that the ants can consume.
  • The anti-rejection drug, cyclosporine, is produced by a fungus.
  • The living stuff in agricultural soils equals the weight of about 125 sheep per acre and half of it is fungus.

If you would like to find more about the world of fungi, check out Fun Facts About Fungi, Kingdom Fungi, or The Fungi Kingdom.