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The forgotten kingdom

An insight into the weird and wonderful world of fungi

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Fungi are a separate kingdom to plants and animals. They have unique features that are as complex and diverse as those of any plant or animal. 

The mushrooms ‘Armillaria ostoyae’ ALAN ROCKEFELLER

The study of fungi is known as mycology, and it is estimated that there are over a million species of fungi, although only an estimated 5 percent have been described by science.

Incredibly, from an evolutionary point of view, humans and the rest of the animal kingdom are more closely related to fungi than they are to plants.

Many key characteristics of fungi highlight this fact. Plant cell walls are made up of a carbohydrate called cellulose, whereas the cell walls of fungi are composed of chitin, the same organic polymer that gives insects an exoskeleton and octopuses their beaks.

Another component is that fungi store their energy-giving molecules as glycogen, exactly as we do in our muscle and liver cells. Plants store their energy in compound starch. The differences between plants and fungi become more obvious on analysis when we compare the differences of the two kingdoms in greater detail.

Like chalk and cheese?

Many people eat mushrooms, although personally I can't stand them! When asked what a mushroom would be classed as, the most common answer is that it is a vegetable, but to say that it is an animal would actually be more accurate!

‘Omphalotus nidiformis’ on a ‘Hakea salicifolia’ stump CAS LIBER

The members of the fungi kingdom are anything but plants, and they are therefore certainly not vegetables.

They do not photosynthesize, and therefore they are not green. They have no seeds but reproduce using spores. They are heterotrophs, meaning they depend on other living things for their nutrition just like animals do, unlike plants, which are autotrophs, meaning they make their own organic matter from basic inorganic materials such as water and carbon dioxide.

But whatever fungi may be classified as, one thing is certain: they are vastly important to many ecosystems, and, without them, life on earth would be very different.

What are fungi?

Many fungi are microscopic, although some can be giants. They also come in many shapes and sometimes can look beautiful, although at other times they appear as simply disgusting!

They are either single-celled or are made up of cells that align themselves in tubular threads known as hyphae. A whole body of these threads is known as a mycelium.

Many fungi are edible, like the ones found in recipes, but they can also be incredibly poisonous, sometimes causing death when eaten. They kill everything from plants and animals to even disease-causing bacteria.

Many fungi are essential to ecosystems because they are decomposers, meaning they break down dead and waste organic matter into simple inorganic minerals, thereby allowing nutrients in ecosystems to be cycled.

The lichen ‘Lobaria pulmonaria’, a symbiosis of fungal, algal, and cyanobacterial species. BERND HAYNOLD

If you have ever seen a dead tree lying in a forest, you can bet it was covered in several kinds of fungus. And that is only what you can see.

They are special in that they are one of the few decomposers that can break down lignin, which is what makes wood.

To put it in perspective, if fungi were not in nature, the amount of dead matter predominantly composed of leaves and other plant material would be piled so high that it would take over the surface of the planet!

Other fungi form symbiotic relationships with about four-fifths of all plants on land. The fungus called mycorrhiza grows in and around the roots of plants.

It benefits the plants by using its decomposition abilities, making nutrients available to the plants in otherwise potentially nutrient-poor soils.

The mycorrhiza fungus benefits from the plant by utilising the plant's sugars for its own respiratory needs. It consumes the carbohydrates produced by the plant from its roots, but the nutrient benefit to the plant outweighs the sugar loss to the much larger tree.

Other fungi form symbiotic relationships with insects such as termites and leaf-cutter ants.

The insects provide the fungus with "food" in the form of plant matter (cellulose) that the insects may not be able to digest, but which the fungus can, and so the invading fungi grow on the collected plant material, and insects then eat the fungi.

Fungi: Where art thou?

Simply, everywhere! They thrive on land, in the air and in the water. They also inhabit you! A species of fungi is living on you right now, feeding on your dead skin cells.

It is called Tinea versicolor, and, in certain conditions, such as those found in hot, wet, humid places like Thailand, it can grow out of control and leave white patches on your skin. It is not harmful, just unsightly and a bit itchy.

Parasitic fungi

Other fungi can become more serious when infecting humans, with ringworm and athlete's foot prominent amongst them. Ringworm is a fungal infection that infects humans and many other animals. It forms a red ring that can have raised edges, looking like a worm in a ring under the skin. It is certainly not a worm though, but a fungus.

Another common fungal infection is athlete's foot, which grows in white, scaly, dry patches between toes. It can infect other areas of the body, but it mostly affects the feet and is spread where people walk barefoot, such as in shower areas.

Many plants can get fungicidal infections and die as a result. For crop farmers, this situation can be financially devastating. If you leave fruit or bread out on the bench, a fur-like substance will grow on the food, turning it mouldy. This is a fungus in the form of a mould.

Useful fungi

Not all fungi are bad. In fact, without many fungi, your life would be vastly different. In the process of fermentation (anaerobic respiration), yeast and other fungi produce alcohol, which is used in the making of beer and wine. Soy sauce is also made from the fermentation of fungi, and who in Thailand could live without this food ingredient/condiment?

Bread is also made by yeast fermenting, but the alcohol evaporates in the cooking process. The other product of fermentation is carbon dioxide gas, and this bubbles out, causing the bread to rise, resulting in the bubbly texture of bread.

Champagne also gets bubbles as a result of the carbon dioxide produced in fermentation. Tofu is made possible due to fungi, but that is one food I can certainly live without!

Amazing fungi

Truffles, the "king of fungi", are a delicacy and much sought after by chefs and food lovers the world over. A white truffle once sold for 125,000! A clonal colony of fungi called the honey mushroom has spanned an area of nearly 9 square kilometers in the US, making it the largest organism by area in the world!

And the death cap mushroom is the most poisonous mushroom of all. It can kill you if you eat just half a cap. And worryingly, these mushrooms look very much like edible mushrooms.

The forgotten kingdom? Not in my book!


Dave Canavan has an MSc in Behavioural Ecology and is the principal of Garden International School. Dave is fascinated by science and loves animals, especially the dangerous kind! You may contact Dave at davidc@gardenbangkok.com .

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