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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the importance of fungi to the balance of the environment
  • Summarize the role of fungi in food and beverage preparation
  • Describe the importance of fungi in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries
  • Discuss the role of fungi as model organisms

Although we often think of fungi as organisms that cause disease and rot food, fungi are important to human life on many levels. As we have seen, they influence the well-being of human populations on a large scale because they are part of the nutrient cycle in ecosystems. They have other ecosystem roles as well. As animal pathogens, fungi help to control the population of damaging pests. These fungi are very specific to the insects they attack, and do not infect animals or plants. Fungi are currently under investigation as potential microbial insecticides, with several already on the market. For example, the fungus Beauveria bassiana is a pesticide being tested as a possible biological control agent for the recent spread of emerald ash borer. It has been released in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland ( [link] ).

 Photo shows a green, stump-shaped ash borer jutting from the bark of a tree.
The emerald ash borer is an insect that attacks ash trees. It is in turn parasitized by a pathogenic fungus that holds promise as a biological insecticide. The parasitic fungus appears as white fuzz on the body of the insect. (credit: Houping Liu, USDA Agricultural Research Service)

The mycorrhizal relationship between fungi and plant roots is essential for the productivity of farm land. Without the fungal partner in root systems, 80–90 percent of trees and grasses would not survive. Mycorrhizal fungal inoculants are available as soil amendments from gardening supply stores and are promoted by supporters of organic agriculture.

We also eat some types of fungi. Mushrooms figure prominently in the human diet. Morels, shiitake mushrooms, chanterelles, and truffles are considered delicacies ( [link] ). The humble meadow mushroom, Agaricus campestris , appears in many dishes. Molds of the genus Penicillium ripen many cheeses. They originate in the natural environment such as the caves of Roquefort, France, where wheels of sheep milk cheese are stacked in order to capture the molds responsible for the blue veins and pungent taste of the cheese.

 Photo shows a mushroom with a convoluted black cap.
The morel mushroom is an ascomycete much appreciated for its delicate taste. (credit: Jason Hollinger)

Fermentation—of grains to produce beer, and of fruits to produce wine—is an ancient art that humans in most cultures have practiced for millennia. Wild yeasts are acquired from the environment and used to ferment sugars into CO 2 and ethyl alcohol under anaerobic conditions. It is now possible to purchase isolated strains of wild yeasts from different wine-making regions. Louis Pasteur was instrumental in developing a reliable strain of brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae , for the French brewing industry in the late 1850s. This was one of the first examples of biotechnology patenting.

Many secondary metabolites of fungi are of great commercial importance. Antibiotics are naturally produced by fungi to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria, limiting their competition in the natural environment. Important antibiotics, such as penicillin and the cephalosporins, are isolated from fungi. Valuable drugs isolated from fungi include the immunosuppressant drug cyclosporine (which reduces the risk of rejection after organ transplant), the precursors of steroid hormones, and ergot alkaloids used to stop bleeding. Psilocybin is a compound found in fungi such as Psilocybe semilanceata and Gymnopilus junonius, which have been used for their hallucinogenic properties by various cultures for thousands of years.

As simple eukaryotic organisms, fungi are important model research organisms. Many advances in modern genetics were achieved by the use of the red bread mold Neurospora crassa . Additionally, many important genes originally discovered in S. cerevisiae served as a starting point in discovering analogous human genes. As a eukaryotic organism, the yeast cell produces and modifies proteins in a manner similar to human cells, as opposed to the bacterium Escherichia coli, which lacks the internal membrane structures and enzymes to tag proteins for export. This makes yeast a much better organism for use in recombinant DNA technology experiments. Like bacteria, yeasts grow easily in culture, have a short generation time, and are amenable to genetic modification.

Section summary

Fungi are important to everyday human life. Fungi are important decomposers in most ecosystems. Mycorrhizal fungi are essential for the growth of most plants. Fungi, as food, play a role in human nutrition in the form of mushrooms, and also as agents of fermentation in the production of bread, cheeses, alcoholic beverages, and numerous other food preparations. Secondary metabolites of fungi are used as medicines, such as antibiotics and anticoagulants. Fungi are model organisms for the study of eukaryotic genetics and metabolism.

Questions & Answers

why drinking excess alcohol causes thirst and dehydration
uwikuzo Reply
what is reproduction
smart Reply
it is d act of bringing young ones to life
Oyebanji
to ensure survival of a species🚴‍♀️
Michelle
what is a genotype
Collins
what is hazardous
smart
a cell is the smallest unit of a living thing. so we all have cell
smart
It is the formation of a zygote resulting from the fusion of the sperm cell with the ovum.Thus,this results in the production of new species which are genetically dissimilar from their parent cells.
Pallavi
what is size of cell
Mohd Reply
what is size of Hart
Mohd
nanometers=um sign thingie
Michelle
microns=nanometers
Michelle
monomers and polymers of nucleic acids?
Jyrl Reply
dna and rna involvement
Michelle
give me the elements of the soil
Iguma Reply
Air, water, organic matter, inorganic matter
Tshwano
soil water humus air
Veronicah
yap
Beloved
silica, iron
Patience
potassium, sulfur, calcium, carbon
Michelle
what is cell
iyaji Reply
A cell is a smallest fundamental unit of a living organisms.
Kem
the basic structural and functional unit of life
Patience
what is size of cell
Mohd
all things are made up of.....all things cannot exist without pre-exisiting cells...check out the 16th ce tury to learn more about microscope use and cells. i will give a hint: Mr. L.
Michelle
we are all made of cells
Michelle
Nutrition - sensitive intervention
Therowda Reply
what does the sori In fern mean
arhin Reply
biology is the study .exactly what is life?
Jerry
i'm sorry , the study of life
Jerry
how can U identify a person through his blood
Frankyx Reply
through genetic fingerprinting where specific DNA sequences in a person genome can be identified.
Pallavi
by help of genetics and DNA test
Meerbadini
can it also be detected using an RNA test
Frankyx
environmental biology
Ojesola Reply
what is phytoplankton
Ojesola
What is anabolism
Treasure Reply
the break down of substance
Aunty
how many teeth has an adult person
TSEGAY Reply
36
Treasure
32
Favour
32
Kamaluddeen
32 teeth
Meerbadini
32
OLAMIDE
32 (or 36 including the wisdom teeth)
Hailey
32
Sani
26?🤓
Michelle
what is homoestastis
Ayo Reply
hypothalamus negative feedback vs. postive feedback systems.
Michelle
it is the maintenance of a steady internal environment.it is controlled largely by the brain especially the hypothalamus.
Oyebanji
What is a cell
Eric Reply
A cell is the building block of all organisms
Millicent
yes it is , it also helps in functions .
Joezman
cell is structural & functional unit of oraganisms
Meerbadini
it is a building blocks of a living organism
Joezman
it is the basic unit of life in living organisms
Nabwonso
it is the basic unite of life in living organisms
Nabwonso
it is the fundamental unit of life
Adewoye
it is the structural and functional unit of life
Ojesola
Why cells are classify as living and non living things
Millicent Reply
due to such as virus which acts as a living cell inside the cell of an organisms and out side of cell in form of crystals
Meerbadini
because there are living cells which performs complex processes such as reproduction and metabolism then there are dead cells like the top most part of the epidermis or the bark
irish
because there are living cells which performs complex function such as reproduction and metabolism
David
cause otherwise you could call fire alive
Marissa

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Source:  OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11448/1.10
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