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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

what is class bryophyta
Emefa Reply
how many stages do we have in glycolysis?
Damali
10 stages
Elisha
the presence of a membrane enclosed nuclosed is a characteristics of what
Addai Reply
eukaryotic cell
captain
hetreothalism in fungi
Lekhram Reply
there are 3 trimester in human pregnancy
ROHIN Reply
I don't know answer of this question can u help me
ROHIN
yes
Bisa
what is a cell
Fatima Reply
A cell is functional and structural unit of life.
Bisa
what is genetic
Janet Reply
I join
Janet
what are the branchas of biology
Prisca Reply
zoology, ecology
Millicent
biochemistry,cytology,herpetology...etc
R0se
genetics, microbiology,botany and embryology
Muhammad
what is a cell
Kulunbawi Reply
cell is smallest unit of life. cells are often cell the building blocks of life...
Muhammad
the first twenty element
Orapinega Reply
what are the characteristics of living things?
R0se
growth,respiration,nutrition,sensitivity, movement,irritability, excretion,death.
Obinna
What is the difference between adaptation and competition in animals
Adeyemi Reply
What is biology
Adeyemi
it is a natural science stadey about living things
Zamiil
Biology is the bronch of science which deals with the study of life is called biology
Aziz
what is the x in 300 stands for?
Ogbudu Reply
the properties of life
Clarinda Reply
response to the environment, reproduction, homeostasis, growth,energy processing etc.....
Pushpam
hello.
Daniela
hi
MacPeter
Good
Thomas
what is reproduction
Tims
Reproduction is a fundamental feature of all known life,each individual organism exist as a result of re production.....or else Multiplying...
R0se
a complete virus particle known as
Darlington Reply
These are formed from identical protein subunitscalled capsomeres.
Pushpam
fabace family plant name
Pushpam Reply
in eukaryotes ...protein channel name which transport protein ...
Pushpam Reply
in bacteria ...chromosomal dna duplicate structure called
Pushpam

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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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