10 fascinating facts about the secret life of fungi

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They are raw material for medicines and consumed as food, but they also cause damage, causing diseases in plants and animals.

They are considered essential for life on Earth. Still, more than 90% of the estimated 3.8 million fungi that exist in the world are currently unknown to science.

“It’s such an interesting set of organisms, and yet we know so little about them,” says Professor Kathy Willis, director of science at Kew Gardens, London’s Botanical Gardens, who has coordinated one of the largest studies on the subject. (read more below).

“They are really strange organisms, with the most bizarre life cycle. And yet, when you understand their role in the Earth’s ecosystem, you realize that they support life on the planet.”

Many people are familiar with edible mushrooms or the mold behind penicillin.

But fungi serve a number of vital functions, from helping plants extract water and nutrients from the soil to providing raw materials for drugs that can lower blood cholesterol or allow organ transplants.

They are also promising elements in studies that seek new ways to decompose plastics and generate new types of biofuels.

But they have a darker side: devastating trees, crops and other plants around the world, and wiping out animals like amphibians.

The Doctor and the Monster

Ester Gaya, who leads a research project at Kew Gardens exploring the diversity and evolution of fungi, says they are a bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, characters in The Doctor and the Beast.

“They can be good and bad at the same time,” he says. “The same fungus can be seen as harmful — it can be bad — but it can also have a lot of potential and (offer) a lot of solutions.”

The fungal kingdom contains some of the most harmful pathogens for crops. At the same time, they recycle nutrients and play a role in regulating carbon dioxide levels.

“We ignored fungi at our peril,” says Willis.

“This is a realm that we need to start taking seriously, especially with climate change and all the other challenges we face.”

Fascinating facts about fungi

1. Fungi are in a kingdom of their own, but they are closer to animals than to plants;

two. They have chemicals in their cell walls shared with lobsters and crabs;

3. A fungus has been discovered that can decompose plastics in weeks instead of years;

4. There is evidence to suggest that yeast — a type of fungus — was used to make the alcoholic drink mead 9,000 years ago;

5. At least 350 species are consumed as food, including truffles, which can sell for thousands of dollars each, Fusarium venenatum (also known as quorn, a meat substitute) and those present in marmite paste (traditional in the UK) and cheeses. ;

6. Plastic car parts, synthetic rubber and lego are made with itaconic acid derived from a fungus;

7. In total, 216 species of fungi are considered hallucinogenic;

8. Fungi are being used to turn crop residues into bioethanol;

9. Products made from fungi can be used as substitutes for polystyrene foam, leather and building materials;

10. Genetic studies show that there are thousands of different fungi in a single soil sample, many of which are unknown and hidden — the so-called “dark taxa”.

In a report entitled State of the World’s Fungi, the largest ever made on the topic and released in 2018, more than 100 scientists from 18 countries found that:

  • More than 2,000 new fungi are discovered each year, from a variety of sources, including a human fingernail;
  • Hundreds of species are collected and consumed as food, with the global market for edible mushrooms valued at R$235 billion per year.
  • Only 56 types of fungi have been evaluated for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which classifies endangered species — compared with more than 25,000 plants and 68,000 animals.

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