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Fungi: Not Much Fun, But, Oh, So Functional!

Many people have negative feelings about fungi because they’re the cause of myriad problems including toenail fungus, skin rashes, dead spots in the lawn, plant diseases, and turning leftovers into science experiments in the refrigerator. Without fungi, though, we’d be in a heap of trouble—literally.

A fungus starts as a spore, which grows a long, thread-like white or clear hollow tube called a hypha, which may have dividing walls called septae. A mass or web of hyphae is called mycelium. Hence the study of fungi is called mycology. A gram of garden soil (about 1/5 of a teaspoon) can contain a million fungi, and if you lined up all the hyphae in a single strand, it could stretch out to 16 feet long.

Saprophytic fungi digest dead stuff and release organic nutrients into the surrounding substrate. These nutrients then become available to plants. Fungi, in combination with bacteria, quickly inhabit dead material and begin the decomposing process within 24 hours. When you see steam rising from new piles of tree cutters’ chipped wood, it’s a sign that the decomposers are working. These fungi play a critical role in natural ecosystems.

Read the entire article in the March 2011 issue