Ecology of Fungi

Fungi- (singular; fungus) have a true nucleus, meaning that they are eukaryotic organisms and reproduce (both sexually and asexually) by spores. Fungal spores are primarily disseminated through wind. Fungi have crucial ecological roles in transporting nutrients through underground fungal hyphae networks, decomposing dead biomass material and serving as food for some mammals, including us humans. Although, some fungi are poisonous and can cause disease, this serves as a consequence of their vast biological diversity. Fungi come in numerous species and have been found in marine, terrestrial and freshwater environments.

gang of mushrooms growing from soil
gang of mushrooms growing from soil

Fungi Evolution

According to a 2020 study from the Universit√© libre de Bruxelles posits that the first mushrooms evolved on Earth between 715 and 810 million years ago, predating other estimates by roughly 300 million years. The fossilized remains of mycelium in sediments leads Steeve Bonneville, leader of the study and professor at the Universit√© libre de Bruxelles to believe that microscopic mushrooms were associated with early plant predecessors.

However, the origin of fungi are still quite mysterious. Estimates range in the true number of mushroom species that exist, as very few of them have been identified. Recent research suggests that as many as 5 million or more fungal species may exist. John Todd, Canadian ecologist and author of “Healing Earth” asserts that fungi evolved from Protists – one of the six kingdoms of life – about 1 billion years ago. The long history of fungi are telling of their evolutionary adaptability throughout Earth’s climatological and biological changes.

Is Fungi A Plant or Animal?

Fungi were once thought to be entirely immobile, however, some species have mobile phases. Motility has long been conceptualized as a characteristic inherent to plants. Plants are also known to produce their own food. Fungi are similar to animals in that they don’t produce their own food. Like animals, fungi are heterotrophs; in other words use digestive enzymes to dissolve and integrate nutrients. Also fungi do not share the cellulose found plant cells, instead, fungal cell walls contain chitin, which are polycarbohydrates made from chains of glucose. As counter intuitive as it seems, fungi appear to have striking resemblances to animal organisms rather than plants.

Importance of Mushrooms | What Are The Ecological Benefits of Fungi?

The mutualistic symbiotic relationship between plants and photosynthetic organisms – a symbiosis known as mycorrhiza – is one of the most vital support systems for plant growth, including aquatic vegetation like algae. In a mycorrhizal interaction, the fungal mycelia extend a network of hyphae to channel water and nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen to plant root systems underground. In exchange, mushrooms benefit by receiving sugars produced by plants.

Fungi in the saprophyte grouping are important because they act as decomposers in most ecosystems that they are part of and recycle organic matter. Many fungi draw nutrients from dead or decaying content (particularly carbon- and nitrogen-containing compounds) and use specialized enzymes to break down complex molecules, these nutrients are then released into soils and plants. In doing so, fungi accelerate the rate at which deceased organic material degrades and is reabsorbed into the ecosystem by plants and bacteria.

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