- Describe the importance of fungi to the balance of the environment
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).
Importance of Fungi in Human Life
Although we often think of fungi as organisms that cause disease and rot food, they are vitally important to human life on many levels. As we have seen, fungi 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 other 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 being tested as a possible biological control agent for the recent spread of emerald ash borer a beetle that feeds on ash trees. 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, but there is little evidence as to the effectiveness.
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.