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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

effect of planning beans of using fertilizer
Elizerbeth Reply
what do we mean by transgenic organisms?
FADILAT Reply
what is or are the functions of the Islets of Langarhaans
FADILAT
They are the regions of the pancreas that contains the endocrine cell
Iyadi
is the studly of life
Aisha Reply
what is biology
Asunta Reply
is the study of living organism and their interection with one another and their environment.
Belbon
what is soil
Mukisa Reply
the top layer of the earth in which plant's, tree's
Ahmad
type of soil
Asunta
function of cell wall
Nthati Reply
function of cell wall
Asunta
To protect the cell from bursting
Maurice
to protect the cell from bursting
Deborah
to protect all other internal components of the cell
Olaoye
What is escherichia coli
Tumise Reply
in what type of cells is meiosis taking place?
Rhyeann Reply
sex cells
Eric
hlo
Amit
reproductive system of earthworm plzz describes
Amit
procryotic cell and some eucaryotic cell
Olaoye
applications of biology
Namawejje Reply
what is dormancy?
Aliyu Reply
hello guys what's the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes
Nwachukwu Reply
hlo what are the applications of biology?
Namawejje
eukaryotic cells have DNA in their nucleus while prokaryotic cells have their DNA present freely in their cytoplasm.
FADILAT
deviation from mendelian
Ogali Reply
what is lethal allele
Ogali
Explain how chemical , bioligical and physical interaction between themselves and the non living components ?
Beyan Reply
what is Tissues
Faith Reply
Group of similar cells performing some related functions We have some type of tissues Connective Muscle Epithelial Nervous tissues
peter
group of cells that is called tissue.
Nikita
tissue is the arrangement or combination of similar cells that perform the same function .
FADILAT
what is abiotic?
Williams Reply
state 2 abiotic factors that affect the rate of transpiration in plants?
Benenge
non living things
Chris
1) temperature:the temperature of the atmosphere affects the opening and closing of the stomata in the leaves of plants .high temperature encourages water loss . 2)wind : air flow encourages transpiration in plants . example,plants that are found on high areas like mountains transpire easily
FADILAT
I agree with Fadilat Muhammad In addition, water plants tend to reserve water during dry seasons so if they are not given plenty of water, they keep the water to them selves
Iyadi

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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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