What would happen if there were no fungi?
We'd be living in a huge trash pile! All the fallen leaves, grass clippings, dead trees, and other organic waste would just build up. Fungi are important decomposers in the environment. Not only do they get rid of wastes, they make the nutrients in the wastes available to other organisms. This is just one way that fungi are important to us.
Fungi are extremely important to the ecosystem because they are one of the major decomposers of organic material. Decomposing organic material is how fungi acquire energy. But fungi have other roles in addition to being decomposers. How do fungi help people? They are used to help prepare food and beverages, and they have many other uses.
Importance of Fungi for Human Use
- Yeasts are crucial for the fermentation process that makes beer, wine, and bread. Fermentation occurs in the absence of oxygen and allows the first step of cellular respiration, glycolysis, to continue.
- Some fungi are used in the production of soy sauce and tempeh, a source of protein used in Southeast Asia.
- Fungi can produce antibiotics, such as penicillin. Antibiotics are important medicines that kill bacteria, and penicillin was the first identified cure against many deadly bacterial species. Antibiotics only treat bacterial diseases; they can not be used to treat viral or fungal diseases.
- Mushrooms are fungi that are eaten by people all over the globe.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a single-celled fungus called brewer's or baker's yeast, is used in the baking of bread and in making wine and beer through fermentation.
The video Bread Mold Kills Bacteria at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvEfyJc4QPA explains Alexander Fleming's famous discovery that lead to the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin. Antibiotics are used to kill harmful bacteria. See Alexander Fleming 1881 - 1955 at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bmflem.html for more information about Dr. Fleming.
Edible and Poisonous Fungi
Some of the best known types of fungi are mushrooms, which can be edible or poisonous (Figure below). Many species are grown commercially, but others are harvested from the wild. When you order a pizza with mushrooms or add them to your salad, you are most likely eating Agaricus bisporus, known as white or button mushrooms, the most commonly eaten species. Other mushroom species are gathered from the wild for people to eat or for commercial sale. Many mushroom species are poisonous to humans. Some mushrooms will simply give you a stomachache, while others may kill you. Some mushrooms you can eat when they are cooked but are poisonous when raw. So if you find mushrooms in the wild, don't eat them until you are certain they are safe!
Have you ever eaten blue cheese? Do you know what makes it blue? You guessed it. A fungus. For certain types of cheeses, producers add fungal spores to milk curds to promote the growth of mold, which makes the cheese blue. Molds used in cheese production are safe for humans to eat.
Some fungi are poisonous and must be avoided.
- Yeast are used for the fermentation process that makes beer, wine, and bread.
- Some mushrooms are edible, but others can make you sick or even kill you.
Use the resources below to answer the questions that follow.
Explore More I
- What did Alexander Fleming observe that led to the discovery of penicillin?
- What does penicillin do?
- Where was penicillin isolated from?
- What did scientists need to do to grow Penicillium notatum in deep fermentation vats?
Explore More II
- Do the same species of fungi take care of the entire decomposition process? Explain your answer.
- Do all species of fungi seek the same resources from decaying matter? Explain your answer.
- Why is biodiversity among fungi important?
- What are two human uses of fungi?
- Do you think it is safe to eat a mushroom you find in your yard? Why or why not?