There are many things of unfathomable importance that most of us never think about. They exist in cryptic realms beyond the sight of the naked eye yet play an unparalleled role in our lives. The fungal kingdom and its great diversity of species are one of these important things.
You see, fungi are the unsung heroes of the natural world. They are the great mediators and connectors of life, continuously working behind the scenes to shape life as we know it. While it's plants and their photosynthetic abilities that often get the spotlight above ground, it's the fungi that make this all possible below ground.
After all, it's only by allying with fungi that plants have been able to flourish and shape today's terrestrial ecosystems. About 95% of plants form symbiotic relationships with fungi in their roots, an ancestral collaboration that dates back to the arrival of plants on land. It's likely that without this symbiotic relationship, plants wouldn't have been keen to make this metamorphic leap from water to land, at least not as quickly as they did.
As we'll discuss in more detail later in the story, this is just the tip of the iceberg of fungi's role in the environment. Fungi are important players in earth's natural cycles, influencing the flow of important soil nutrients and carbon. They're also major pathogens, greatly influencing and regulating population dynamics in ecosystems. Last but not least, fungi form an important part of the microbiome for both plants and animals.
Beyond this, fungi also play a role in everyday human life. They have helped us develop life-saving medicines like penicillin; they're used for the fermentation of culinary delicacies (Bread, wine, and cheese, anyone?), and today there are other novel uses being developed. For example, fungi are now used for the production of sustainable materials that can replace styrofoam and leather.
One of the most recent applications of fungi is in the remediation of environmental pollution. This is an area of study known as mycoremediation. Mycoremediation harnesses the power of fungi to break down, transform, or sequester environmental contaminants in ways that remove them from the environment. This includes the remediation of a grand diversity of pollutants ranging from crude oil to pharmaceutical waste and potentially even plastic.
It's hard to imagine how you even begin to harness fungi in this way, especially for those illiterate about the intricacies of fungal ecology. It's something this story will be discussing in detail after we cover some basics about fungi, who they are, and the roles they play in nature and human society.
Fungi 101: More Than Just Mushrooms
When most people think of fungi, they imagine a store-bought button mushroom. A mushroom like that which you find on a pizza or in the infamous can of mushroom soup. A rather large percentage of people say they don't like mushrooms, although most people have only tried one variety out of the more than 600 edible species consumed around the world.
For others, fungi may have an even less appealing association; athlete's foot or other fungal infections. Others think of molds, rotting foods, and a wide variety of unpleasant things. To say the least, fungi are often given a bad wrap.
Yet, considering you've stuck with me this far, you probably realize fungi aren't all bad. As a matter of fact, they've been getting quite a lot of positive attention in the media and environmentally conscious circles over the past couple of years. There's a good reason for it; fungi hold solutions to many of our modern-day problems.