Ubiquitous, Unique, and Useful: 5 Characteristics of Fungi that Set Them Apart

Fungi are everywhere. However, their tremendous variety and complexity make them largely mysterious and misunderstood. They live in close relationships with the plants and animals around them, using highly evolved mechanisms to ensure their survival. To help understand how important they are to the environment, this roundup will highlight fungi's five most important characteristics.

There Are Many Different Types

The word "fungi" evokes images of mushrooms for most people. While they may be the most readily visible signs of fungi, several broad types exist. In addition to mushrooms, yeast is a prevalent fungus, vital in producing foods like bread, beer, and other items. Mildew, rust, and mold are all types of fungi as well, and they can attack crops, causing fungal infections of wheat, corn, and other food staples.

The Visible Elements of Fungi are Usually Reproductive

The visible parts of fungi, particularly mushrooms, are not the main part of the organism. Instead, the parts that are not underground or otherwise hidden usually serve a reproductive function. Although fungi do not produce fruit like plants, mushrooms and other visible elements of some fungi are "fruiting bodies." That is, they emit spores that move through wind, animal, or insect power to new locations and start a new organism.

Spores Are Expert Hitchhikers

The underside of most mushrooms has a series of folds or ridges called "gills." These folds release the fungus spores. Generally, fungal spores are super light and can ride the wind for many miles. Some can stay in the air for long periods, riding air currents high into the atmosphere.

Other species release spores specifically designed to navigate the water—some even sport flagellae, small tails that allow them to swim to a suitable location. Bird's nest fungi have mushrooms shaped like cups that hold several spore packets. When a raindrop hits the cup, the impact force launches the spore packets into the air.

Finally, many fungi rely on animal or insect transportation to propagate – it's similar to plants using pollinators. Fungi often emit scents to attract their preferred mode of transportation. Some even glow in the dark to attract their rides.

Fungi in the forest
Most Fungi Remain Hidden under the Surface

When spores arrive at their final destination and start to grow, they do so underground. The structure that makes up most of the organism is called mycelium – a complex root-like system consisting of tiny filaments that can be nearly invisible to the human eye. These filaments, or "hyphae," weave such a complex web that the mycelium is often what holds soil together. It acts as a biological glue to keep everything from eroding too quickly.

The hyphae secrete digestive enzymes that break complex nutrients down into their simplest forms so they can be absorbed and incorporated into the mycelium. In this way, fungi "decompose" their food sources. A typical visible example is mushrooms growing on a dead tree. The mycelium extracts carbon and other nutrients from the log, helping to break down its structure and return its nutrients to the soil.

Fungi Fulfill a Huge Number of Ecological Functions

As fungi go about their business to reproduce and thrive (as all lifeforms do), they also fulfill broader ecological functions. For example, humans and animals have consumed mushrooms for nutritional and medicinal purposes for millennia. 

Mycorrhizae are a particular group of fungi that multiply the effectiveness of plant roots. They dwell on the roots and send their hyphae great distances through the soil to seek nutrients and deliver them back to the plant. In return, the fungi gain a share in the glucose photosynthesized by their host. This symbiotic relationship is critical for up to 90% of plants in the world – without the fungi, the plants are much more likely to become sick and malnourished.

Key Takeaways
  • Be a Fungi Friend – If you have a garden (or any plants for that matter), do what you can to promote healthy fungi in the soil. Avoid breaking the surface of the dirt, and never spray fungicides – your plants may wither without the subterranean help of mycelium.
  • Increase Your Intake – Their biology is fascinating, but their health benefits are truly stunning. Many fungi are superfoods that can help you take control of your health. If you don't like mushrooms, try tempeh.  
  • Compost with Fungi – If you're environmentally conscious, you may already compost. If you are, try adding some mushrooms to the pile. They will speed up the process and leave you with excellent fertilizer.