Fungi are important organisms that are so distinct from plants and animals that they have been allotted their own classifications of life on earth. Fungi are tremendously important to human society and the planet we live on. They provide fundamental products including foods, medicines, and enzymes important to industry. They are also the unsung heroes of nearly all ecosystems, hidden from view but inseparable from the processes that sustain life on the planet.
In 1969 fungi were first officially recognized as a distinct group. And more recently, using DNA sequences and comparisons of cell structure, we have learned that fungi are in fact more closely related to animals than they are to plants. Superficially, they remind us more of plants than animals because they don't move, but scratch the biological surface just a little and that's just about the only thing they have in common.
No one knows for sure how many species of fungi there are on our planet at this point in time, but what is known is that at least 99,000 species of fungi have been described, and new species are described at the rate of approximately 1200 per year.
Fungi come in many different sizes and shapes, and are divided into three main groups depending on the shape.
A unicellular fungus which includes baker's yeast. Yeast can also be found in pharmacies as probiotic which can help prevent diarrhea. There is also yeast that can be damaging to the human body. When present in the mouth, esophagus, bowel and vagina, it can cause yeast infections in people with low immune systems. If it invades the blood yeast can be fatal.
A multicellular fungi and appear as fuzzy growths. Mold can be both harmful and beneficial. For example, mold was used to produce the antibiotic penicillin. Mold is used to produce cheese. Mold commonly contaminates starchy foods and when certain types of this contamination are ingested, it can cause miscarriages, birth defects, and some cancers. Most commonly, mold appears on old bread, and decaying fruit. Mildew is a mold growth that is visible on plants, walls, leather, paper, cloths, and damp areas. It is easy to see that mold is a fungus that can be both helpful and harmful.
A fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source. It typically consists of a stem, cap and gills. Some are harmful and some are not. Some mushrooms are edible and have successfully been cultivated for human consumption. A mushroom develops from a nodule, or pinhead, less than two millimeters in diameter. Many species of mushrooms seemingly appear overnight, growing or expanding rapidly. In reality all species of mushrooms take several days to form primordial mushroom fruit bodies, though they do expand rapidly by the absorption of fluids.
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