Five Facts about Fungi: The Unsung Heroes

Taken using a Raynox DCR-250 on a Pentax 40mm Ltd lens, Pentax K-01 mirrorless camera body.  ISO 1600
Taken using a Raynox DCR-250 on a Pentax 40mm Ltd lens, Pentax K-01 mirrorless camera body. ISO 1600

Sometimes, it's all too easy to overlook what's really important in life. Countless heroes go unsung as they carry out their important work behind the scenes. Today I would like to take a moment to acknowledge a group of unsung heroes working diligently all over the world: fungi.

Technically speaking, a "fungus" is any member of the fungus kingdom -- this includes yeasts, molds and of course, mushrooms. As a mycologist and chief scientist at Chicago Botanic Garden, I work to better understand how fungi work, why they grow where they do, what influences their populations, and how to best protect and conserve them.


Beyond being delicious on pizza, fungi are used in pharmaceuticals, help control pests that threaten our crops and play many vitally important roles in our ecosystems. For example, many mushrooms form a symbiotic -- or interdependent -- relationship with forest trees essential for both tree and fungus to survive. After wildfires like the ones we've seen in Washington and California this year, fungi move in to break down charred material and release its nutrients for the next generation of plants and animals to use as they rebuild the ecosystem. Without fungi, the world would be a very different place.

Here's a look at just a few of the amazing things that make fungi so special:

  1. The Original Hipsters: Fungi refuse to conform. They are so unique, they have their very own kingdom outside of the traditional plant, animal, and bacteria groupings. Fungi are also used in some denim washes to keep your skinny jeans on trend, and more than 60 different fungi species emit light from their bodies (bioluminescence) -- they shine all on their own.

  • All in the Family: The fungus kingdom includes yeasts, molds, and mushrooms. Fungi do not possess the chlorophyll required for photosynthesis, so, much like teenagers, they have to rely on their hosts for food rather than the sun. The scientists that study fungi are called mycologists, and there are at least 1.5 million different species for them to explore.
  • Brass Tacks: Fungi play important roles in a variety of ecosystems. In forests, fungi make up approximately 90 percent of the living things in soil (by mass), and 50 percent on most agricultural land. They even thrive in water systems, breaking down dead plant and animal material to make the litter at the bottom of streams tastier for insects, spiders and crustaceans.
  • Fungi can be BIG and OLD: Honey mushrooms are among the largest living organisms on Earth. One single specimen in an Oregon forest covers 3.4 square miles, and scientists estimate it to be somewhere around 2,400 years old. If you visit the site in the fall, you would see clumps of honey mushrooms scattered around the forest - but the majority of this spectacular fungus grows in the soil. The mushrooms you see are, in a sense, the fungal equivalent to apples on a tree.
  • More Animal than Plant: On a cellular and DNA level, fungi are more similar to animals than plants, and the delicate plates under the cap of a mushroom are called gills. The similarities end there, though - fungi reproduce via spores, and usually can't move on their own.
  • Fungi are, in many ways, the backbone of our global ecosystems. This varied and fascinating Kingdom played a key supporting role in our world's history, and will continue to influence our present and future. We're only beginning to understand the depth and variety of the Fungi Kingdom, and there's a lot of important work left to be done. Mycology is also a critical component of ecology, medicine, agriculture, and many other disciplines. So next time you recover from an illness thanks to Penicillin, enjoy a wild mushroom risotto, or watch a fallen limb turn into a new habitat on the forest floor - remember to thank a fungus.

    Photo Credit: © Chicago Botanic Garden