Sunday, February 05, 2006

Fungus

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Fungus, any member of a diverse group of organisms that—unlike plants and animals—obtain food by absorbing nutrients from an external source. The fossil record suggests that fungi were present 550 million years ago and may have evolved even earlier. Today thousands of different types of fungi grow on and absorb food from substances such as soil, wood, decaying organic matter, or living plants and other organisms. They range from tiny, single-celled organisms invisible to the naked eye to some of the largest living multicellular organisms. In Michigan for example, the underground portion of an individual Armillaria mushroom, a type of fungus, extends more than 12 hectares (30 acres). Other fungi are among the longest-lived organisms on Earth—some lichens, a living partnership of a fungus and an alga, are thought to be more than 4,500 years old.

A large and widely distributed group of organisms, fungi perform activities essential to the functioning of all natural ecosystems. They are among the foremost decomposers of organic matter, breaking down plant and animal remains and wastes into their chemical components. As such, fungi play a critical role in the recycling of minerals and carbon. Fungi’s value to humankind is inestimable. Certain types of fungi, including several types of mold, have proven extremely valuable in the synthesis of antibiotics and hormones used in medicine and of enzymes used in certain manufacturing processes. Some fungi, such as mushrooms and truffles, are considered tasty delicacies that enhance a wide variety of recipes. Not all fungi are beneficial—some damage agricultural crops, cause disease in animals and humans, and form poisonous toxins in food.

Common fungi include mushrooms, puffballs, truffles, yeasts, and most mildews, as well as various plant and animal pathogens (disease agents), such as plant rusts and smuts. Some experts estimate that there are 1.5 million fungus species, of which approximately 100,000 have been identified. The unique characteristics of fungi led scientists to classify these important organisms into a separate kingdom, Kingdom Fungi (also known as Mycetae). Certain fungus-like organisms, such as downy mildews, water molds (also known as oomycetes), and slime molds, once classified as fungi, are now placed in the Kingdom Protista.

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