Fungal Structure and Habitats

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the common structures of fungi
  • Identify common habitats of fungi

Cell Structure and Function

Fungi are eukaryotes, and as such, have a complex cellular organization. As eukaryotes, fungal cells contain a membrane-bound nucleus. The DNA in the nucleus is wrapped around histone proteins, as is observed in other eukaryotic cells. A few types of fungi have structures comparable to bacterial plasmids (loops of DNA); however, the horizontal transfer of genetic information from one mature bacterium to another rarely occurs in fungi. Fungal cells also contain mitochondria and a complex system of internal membranes, including the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus.

Photo shows two large mushrooms, each with a wide white base and a bright red cap. The caps are dotted with small white protrusions.

Figure 1. The poisonous Amanita muscaria is native to temperate and boreal regions of North America. (credit: Christine Majul)

Unlike plant cells, fungal cells do not have chloroplasts or chlorophyll. Many fungi display bright colors arising from other cellular pigments, ranging from red to green to black. The poisonous Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) is recognizable by its bright red cap with white patches (Figure 1). Pigments in fungi are associated with the cell wall and play a protective role against ultraviolet radiation. Some fungal pigments are toxic.

Like plant cells, fungal cells have a thick cell wall. The rigid layers of fungal cell walls contain complex polysaccharides called chitin and glucans. Chitin, also found in the exoskeleton of insects, gives structural strength to the cell walls of fungi. The wall protects the cell from desiccation and predators. Fungi have plasma membranes similar to other eukaryotes, except that the structure is stabilized by ergosterol: a steroid molecule that replaces the cholesterol found in animal cell membranes. Most members of the kingdom Fungi are nonmotile. Flagella are produced only by the gametes in the primitive Phylum Chytridiomycota.


Although fungi are primarily associated with humid and cool environments that provide a supply of organic matter, they colonize a surprising diversity of habitats, from seawater to human skin and mucous membranes. Chytrids are found primarily in aquatic environments. Other fungi, such as Coccidioides immitis, which causes pneumonia when its spores are inhaled, thrive in the dry and sandy soil of the southwestern United States. Fungi that parasitize coral reefs live in the ocean. However, most members of the Kingdom Fungi grow on the forest floor, where the dark and damp environment is rich in decaying debris from plants and animals. In these environments, fungi play a major role as decomposers and recyclers, making it possible for members of the other kingdoms to be supplied with nutrients and live.

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