Although humans have used yeasts and mushrooms since prehistoric times, the biology of fungi was poorly understood until recently. Up until the mid-twentieth century, many scientists classified fungi as plants. Fungi, like plants, arose seemingly rooted in place. They possess a stem-like structure similar to plants, as well as having a root-like fungal mycelium in the soil. In addition, their mode of nutrition was poorly understood.
Progress in the field of fungal biology was the result of mycology: the scientific study of fungi. Based on fossil evidence, fungi appeared in the pre-Cambrian era, about 450 million years ago. Molecular biology analysis of the fungal genome demonstrates that fungi are more closely related to animals than plants. They are a polyphyletic group of organisms that share characteristics, rather than sharing a single common ancestor.
Career Connection: Mycologist
Mycologists are biologists who study fungi. Mycology is a branch of microbiology, and many mycologists start their careers with a degree in microbiology. To become a mycologist, a bachelor’s degree in a biological science (preferably majoring in microbiology) and a master’s degree in mycology are minimally necessary. Mycologists can specialize in taxonomy and fungal genomics, molecular and cellular biology, plant pathology, biotechnology, or biochemistry. Some medical microbiologists concentrate on the study of infectious diseases caused by fungi (mycoses). Mycologists collaborate with zoologists and plant pathologists to identify and control difficult fungal infections, such as the devastating chestnut blight, the mysterious decline in frog populations in many areas of the world, or the deadly epidemic called white nose syndrome, which is decimating bats in the Eastern United States.
Government agencies hire mycologists as research scientists and technicians to monitor the health of crops, national parks, and national forests. Mycologists are also employed in the private sector by companies that develop chemical and biological control products or new agricultural products, and by companies that provide disease control services. Because of the key role played by fungi in the fermentation of alcohol and the preparation of many important foods, scientists with a good understanding of fungal physiology routinely work in the food technology industry. Oenology, the science of wine making, relies not only on the knowledge of grape varietals and soil composition, but also on a solid understanding of the characteristics of the wild yeasts that thrive in different wine-making regions. It is possible to purchase yeast strains isolated from specific grape-growing regions. The great French chemist and microbiologist, Louis Pasteur, made many of his essential discoveries working on the humble brewer’s yeast, thus discovering the process of fermentation.