Ecology of Fungi

Describe the role that fungi play in the ecosystem

Fungi play a crucial role in the balance of ecosystems. They colonize most habitats on Earth, preferring dark, moist conditions. They can thrive in seemingly hostile environments, such as the tundra, thanks to a most successful symbiosis with photosynthetic organisms like algae to produce lichens. Fungi are not obvious in the way large animals or tall trees appear. Yet, like bacteria, they are the major decomposers of nature. With their versatile metabolism, fungi break down organic matter, which would not otherwise be recycled.

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.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the importance of fungi to the balance of the environment
  • Identify some mutualistic relationships of fungi with other organisms

Decomposers and Recyclers

Photo shows two shell-shaped mushrooms growing on decaying wood.

Figure 1. Fungi are an important part of ecosystem nutrient cycles. These bracket fungi growing on the side of a tree are the fruiting structures of a basidiomycete. They receive their nutrients through their hyphae, which invade and decay the tree trunk. (credit: Cory Zanker)

The food web would be incomplete without organisms that decompose organic matter (Figure 1). Some elements—such as nitrogen and phosphorus—are required in large quantities by biological systems, and yet are not abundant in the environment. The action of fungi releases these elements from decaying matter, making them available to other living organisms. Trace elements present in low amounts in many habitats are essential for growth, and would remain tied up in rotting organic matter if fungi and bacteria did not return them to the environment via their metabolic activity.

The ability of fungi to degrade many large and insoluble molecules is due to their mode of nutrition. As seen earlier, digestion precedes ingestion. Fungi produce a variety of exoenzymes to digest nutrients. The enzymes are either released into the substrate or remain bound to the outside of the fungal cell wall. Large molecules are broken down into small molecules, which are transported into the cell by a system of protein carriers embedded in the cell membrane. Because the movement of small molecules and enzymes is dependent on the presence of water, active growth depends on a relatively high percentage of moisture in the environment.

As saprobes, fungi help maintain a sustainable ecosystem for the animals and plants that share the same habitat. In addition to replenishing the environment with nutrients, fungi interact directly with other organisms in beneficial, and sometimes damaging, ways (Figure 2).

Photo shows a shell-shaped shelf fungus growing on a living tree.

Figure 2. Shelf fungi, so called because they grow on trees in a stack, attack and digest the trunk or branches of a tree. While some shelf fungi are found only on dead trees, others can parasitize living trees and cause eventual death, so they are considered serious tree pathogens. (credit: Cory Zanker)

Importance of Fungi in Human Life

 Photo shows a green, stump-shaped ash borer jutting from the bark of a tree.

Figure 3. 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)

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 (Figure 3).

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.

Photo shows a mushroom with a convoluted black cap.

Figure 4. The morel mushroom is an ascomycete much appreciated for its delicate taste. (credit: Jason Hollinger)

We also eat some types of fungi. Mushrooms figure prominently in the human diet. Morels, shiitake mushrooms, chanterelles, and truffles are considered delicacies (Figure 4). 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.

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 CO2 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.

Mutualistic Relationships

Symbiosis is the ecological interaction between two organisms that live together. The definition does not describe the quality of the interaction. When both members of the association benefit, the symbiotic relationship is called mutualistic. Fungi form mutualistic associations with many types of organisms, including cyanobacteria, algae, plants, and animals.

Fungus-Plant Mutualism

One of the most remarkable associations between fungi and plants is the establishment of mycorrhizae. Mycorrhiza, which comes from the Greek words myco meaning fungus and rhizo meaning root, refers to the association between vascular plant roots and their symbiotic fungi. Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of all plant species have mycorrhizal partners. In a mycorrhizal association, the fungal mycelia use their extensive network of hyphae and large surface area in contact with the soil to channel water and minerals from the soil into the plant. In exchange, the plant supplies the products of photosynthesis to fuel the metabolism of the fungus.

There are a number of types of mycorrhizae. Ectomycorrhizae (“outside” mycorrhiza) depend on fungi enveloping the roots in a sheath (called a mantle) and a Hartig net of hyphae that extends into the roots between cells (Figure 5).

Part A compares two types of mycorrhizae are shown: ectomycorrhiza and arbuscular mycorrhiza. In ectomycorrhiza, fungal hyphae form a structure called a Hartig net inside the root. The Hartig net forms rows of cells that extend straight down, and branch toward the outside of the root. A fungal mantle surrounds the root. Mycelia extend from the fungal mantle. In arbuscular mycorrhiza, the fungi form finger-like clusters that are connected to mycelia that extend from the root into the soil. Part B is a micrograph of arbuscular mycorrhiza, which appear as grape-like clusters in a root tip.

Figure 5. (a) Ectomycorrhiza and (b) arbuscular mycorrhiza have different mechanisms for interacting with the roots of plants. (credit b: MS Turmel, University of Manitoba, Plant Science Department)

The fungal partner can belong to the Ascomycota, Basidiomycota or Zygomycota. In a second type, the Glomeromycete fungi form vesicular–arbuscular interactions with arbuscular mycorrhiza (sometimes called endomycorrhizae). In these mycorrhiza, the fungi form arbuscules that penetrate root cells and are the site of the metabolic exchanges between the fungus and the host plant (Figure 5 and Figure 6). The arbuscules (from the Latin for little trees) have a shrub-like appearance. Orchids rely on a third type of mycorrhiza. Orchids are epiphytes that form small seeds without much storage to sustain germination and growth. Their seeds will not germinate without a mycorrhizal partner (usually a Basidiomycete). After nutrients in the seed are depleted, fungal symbionts support the growth of the orchid by providing necessary carbohydrates and minerals. Some orchids continue to be mycorrhizal throughout their lifecycle.

Part A is a photograph showing a white fungal mantle that covers a tree-like structure that has grown from the side of a root. Part B is a micrograph showing ribbon-like hyphae surrounded by spores that are about 30 microns across.

Figure 6. The (a) infection of Pinus radiata (Monterey pine) roots by the hyphae of Amanita muscaria (fly amanita) causes the pine tree to produce many small, branched rootlets. The Amanita hyphae cover these small roots with a white mantle. (b) Spores (round bodies) and hyphae (thread-like structures) are evident in this light micrograph of an arbuscular mycorrhiza between a fungus and the root of a corn plant. (credit a: modification of work by Randy Molina, USDA; credit b: modification of work by Sara Wright, USDA-ARS; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Practice Question

If symbiotic fungi are absent from the soil, what impact do you think this would have on plant growth?

Other examples of fungus–plant mutualism include the endophytes: fungi that live inside tissue without damaging the host plant. Endophytes release toxins that repel herbivores, or confer resistance to environmental stress factors, such as infection by microorganisms, drought, or heavy metals in soil.

Coevolution of Land Plants and Mycorrhizae

Mycorrhizae are the mutually beneficial symbiotic association between roots of vascular plants and fungi. A well-accepted theory proposes that fungi were instrumental in the evolution of the root system in plants and contributed to the success of Angiosperms. The bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), which are considered the most primitive plants and the first to survive on dry land, do not have a true root system; some have vesicular–arbuscular mycorrhizae and some do not. They depend on a simple rhizoid (an underground organ) and cannot survive in dry areas. True roots appeared in vascular plants. Vascular plants that developed a system of thin extensions from the rhizoids (found in mosses) are thought to have had a selective advantage because they had a greater surface area of contact with the fungal partners than the mosses and liverworts, thus availing themselves of more nutrients in the ground.Fossil records indicate that fungi preceded plants on dry land. The first association between fungi and photosynthetic organisms on land involved moss-like plants and endophytes. These early associations developed before roots appeared in plants. Slowly, the benefits of the endophyte and rhizoid interactions for both partners led to present-day mycorrhizae; up to about 90 percent of today’s vascular plants have associations with fungi in their rhizosphere. The fungi involved in mycorrhizae display many characteristics of primitive fungi; they produce simple spores, show little diversification, do not have a sexual reproductive cycle, and cannot live outside of a mycorrhizal association. The plants benefited from the association because mycorrhizae allowed them to move into new habitats because of increased uptake of nutrients, and this gave them a selective advantage over plants that did not establish symbiotic relationships.


Lichens display a range of colors and textures (Figure 7) and can survive in the most unusual and hostile habitats. They cover rocks, gravestones, tree bark, and the ground in the tundra where plant roots cannot penetrate. Lichens can survive extended periods of drought, when they become completely desiccated, and then rapidly become active once water is available again.

Different lichens are shown. Part A shows a lichen that appears like brown flecks on gray rock. Part B shows a moss-like lichen hanging from a tree. Part C shows lichen that have a wide, flat, convoluted shape.

Figure 7. Lichens have many forms. They may be (a) crust-like, (b) hair-like, or (c) leaf-like. (credit a: modification of work by Jo Naylor; credit b: modification of work by “djpmapleferryman”/Flickr; credit c: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

The lichen has multiple layers. The top layer, or cortex, is made up of irregularly shaped cells. Beneath this layer, the cells in the algal zone hyphae wrap around the cyanobacteria. Beneath the algal zone, long, thread-like mycelia occur. Beneath the mycelia is the lower cortex, which is similar in appearance to the upper cortex, but with larger cells. Projections beneath the lower cortex anchor the lichen to its substrate.

Figure 8. This cross-section of a lichen thallus shows the (a) upper cortex of fungal hyphae, which provides protection; the (b) algal zone where photosynthesis occurs, the (c) medulla of fungal hyphae, and the (d) lower cortex, which also provides protection and may have (e) rhizines to anchor the thallus to the substrate.

Lichens are not a single organism, but rather an example of a mutualism, in which a fungus (usually a member of the Ascomycota or Basidiomycota phyla) lives in close contact with a photosynthetic organism (a eukaryotic alga or a prokaryotic cyanobacterium) (Figure 8). Generally, neither the fungus nor the photosynthetic organism can survive alone outside of the symbiotic relationship. The body of a lichen, referred to as a thallus, is formed of hyphae wrapped around the photosynthetic partner. The photosynthetic organism provides carbon and energy in the form of carbohydrates. Some cyanobacteria fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, contributing nitrogenous compounds to the association. In return, the fungus supplies minerals and protection from dryness and excessive light by encasing the algae in its mycelium. The fungus also attaches the symbiotic organism to the substrate.

The thallus of lichens grows very slowly, expanding its diameter a few millimeters per year. Both the fungus and the alga participate in the formation of dispersal units for reproduction. Lichens produce soredia, clusters of algal cells surrounded by mycelia. Soredia are dispersed by wind and water and form new lichens.

Lichens are extremely sensitive to air pollution, especially to abnormal levels of nitrogen and sulfur. The U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service can monitor air quality by measuring the relative abundance and health of the lichen population in an area. Lichens fulfill many ecological roles. Caribou and reindeer eat lichens, and they provide cover for small invertebrates that hide in the mycelium. In the production of textiles, weavers used lichens to dye wool for many centuries until the advent of synthetic dyes.

Lichens are used to monitor the quality of air. Read more on this site from the United States Forest Service.

Fungus-Animal Mutualism

Photo shows an ant carrying a leaf over its head.

Figure 9. A leaf cutting ant transports a leaf that will feed a farmed fungus. (credit: Scott Bauer, USDA-ARS)

Fungi have evolved mutualisms with numerous insects in Phylum Arthropoda: jointed, legged invertebrates. Arthropods depend on the fungus for protection from predators and pathogens, while the fungus obtains nutrients and a way to disseminate spores into new environments. The association between species of Basidiomycota and scale insects is one example. The fungal mycelium covers and protects the insect colonies. The scale insects foster a flow of nutrients from the parasitized plant to the fungus. In a second example, leaf-cutting ants of Central and South America literally farm fungi. They cut disks of leaves from plants and pile them up in gardens (Figure 9). Fungi are cultivated in these disk gardens, digesting the cellulose in the leaves that the ants cannot break down. Once smaller sugar molecules are produced and consumed by the fungi, the fungi in turn become a meal for the ants. The insects also patrol their garden, preying on competing fungi. Both ants and fungi benefit from the association. The fungus receives a steady supply of leaves and freedom from competition, while the ants feed on the fungi they cultivate.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.