A family of health superheroes, whose powers range from fighting cancer to cleaning up pollution: meet the humble fungi.
While fungi are everywhere, we do not know how many of them there are. A 2011 study reckoned there could be up to 5.1 million species. They are both friend and foe: sources of remedies and disease.
Mushrooms, perhaps the most easily recognizable forms of fungi, have been hailed as the latest superfoods, while some experts have said fungi may even have the potential to save the world from humanity’s worst excesses.
Such discoveries are yet another reminder of how our planet’s biodiversity is essential for the health and wellbeing of everything on it. This is why projects such as the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, a global partnership that brings together governments, private sector and civil society organizations to stop deforestation, are needed to protect our natural world.
10 fascinating fungi facts
1. Fungi are often described as being the “fifth kingdom of life on Earth”; they are neither plant nor animal, microbe nor protozoa. Their spores can survive extreme temperatures, radiation and even outer space: in 1988, Russian cosmonauts noticed that something was growing on the outside of the Mir space station’s titanium quartz window – and eating through it. This turned out to be a fungus.
2. The largest living organism on our planet is a single fungus of the genus Armillaria, known as the “honey fungus” due to its sweet taste. Found in the Blue Mountains region of Oregon, America, this weighs an estimated 22,000 pounds (9,979 kg) and is spread over a remarkable 2.4 miles (3.8 km).
3. Fungi live everywhere: in water, on trees, in the soil, in the air – and on and in our bodies. Scientists have begun to appreciate how important the tiny, microscopic organisms – including fungi – that live on our skin and in our gut are to our health. Studies of the so-called microbiome have mostly concentrated on bacteria, but experts now think the fungal equivalent – the mycobiome – may play an important role in our immune system’s health.
4. Mushrooms taste great but are indigestible if uncooked. Cooking releases essential nutrients we need for a healthy life, including protein, vitamins B, C and D, and selenium (which helps prevent cancer). They are a good source of iron, copper, riboflavin, niacin and contain dietary fibre. One portobello mushroom can contain more potassium than a banana.
5. Both edible and inedible fungi have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. For example, Ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, used Fomes fomentarius, a woody species found on trees, to cauterize wounds; Calvatia gigantea, or giant puffball, was used by Native Americans to stem bleeding.
6. Penicillium, a group of moulds (a type of fungi), formed the basis of penicillin, a drug that has saved countless lives since it was developed in the late 1920s.
7. A form of tree fungus has been hailed as a possible defence against biochemical weapons, including smallpox and anthrax. The fungus, known as Laricifomes officinalis when found on larch trees and Fomitopsis officinalis when on Douglas fir, spruce and hemlock, is resistant to influenza viruses. However, though native to Europe and North America, this fungus is becoming increasingly rare, another reason we need to better consider how we protect our plant and animal biodiversity.
8. The prime job of most fungi is to sustain the natural world. Along with bacteria, fungi are important as decomposers in the soil food web. They convert organic matter that is hard to digest into forms other organisms can use. Their strands – or hyphae – physically bind soil particles together, which helps water enter the soil and increases the earth’s ability to retain liquid.
9. Experts say healthy plant roots are infected by and – dependent on – fungi. And they think certain mushroom species may favour certain trees, which is why morels can be found under aspens, elms and oaks. The relationship between plant and fungi is mutually beneficial: the mushrooms feed off the plants they live on while their hyphae protect their hosts from parasites such as insects and harmful microorganisms.
10. Fungi could even help to save our world from pollution. Certain species, such as the oyster mushroom, produce enzymes that digest the hydrocarbons in petroleum. Some can absorb heavy metals like mercury and even digest polyurethane plastics. Scientists are also experimenting to see if certain types of fungi might be able to absorb radiation after nuclear disasters.