GENERAL SIGNIFICANCE OF FUNGI

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  • Fungi are saprophytic organisms. They breakdown organic matter in the environment, and thus enhance nutrient recycling in the natural environment.
  • They are used in the industry for food production. Fungi play critical roles in the production of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages through the process of fermentation (Figure 1). They are also used in the production of bread and organic acids. Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast) is a typical example of fungus used in the production of bread.

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  • Some fungi such as mushrooms are edible. Not all mushrooms are fit for human consumption because some species are poisonous and can cause death when eaten. Caution is therefore required when harvesting mushrooms from the wild for human consumption.
Figure 1. Illustration of some food products produced by the fermentative action of some beneficial fungi such as Saccharomyces species and Penicillium species. Photo courtesy: https://www.microbiologyclass.com
  • Fungi are involved in symbiotic relationships with a number of organisms. For example, fungi form symbiotic associations with green algae or cyanobacteria to form lichens.
  • Lichens are macro-organisms comprising fungi and algae or cyanobacteria.
  • Secondary metabolites produced by fungi and symbiotic associations formed by fungal organisms (for example, lichens) are important source of some lead and novel agents used for the production of biopharmaceuticals, organic acids and other bioactive agents and antimicrobial agents.
  • Fungi store food as lipids and glycogen.
  • Most fungi are environmental organisms, and they grow on simple nutrient medium containing carbohydrates and nitrogen.  
  • Fungi also go into symbiotic associations with plant roots to form fungus roots known as mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae contribute to plants nutrition by facilitating nutrient and water uptake by plant roots from the soil.
  • Some fungi known as endophytes invade the upper parts of some plants where they confer both beneficial and harmful effects. Endophytes are endosymbionts or organisms that comprises a fungus and a bacterium; and which live within plant tissues where they confer several benefits that is either mutualistic or parasitic in nature.  
  • Most fungi are phytopathogens. Phytopathogens are fungal organisms that cause disease in plants especially agricultural crops. Fungi are important plant pathogens as there are more fungal organisms that parasitize crop plants than animals and humans.
  • Some fungi (for example, Candida species) are members of the human normal flora, and can cause disease when the bacterial population of the normal flora is disturbed following irrational antibiotic usage.
  • Fungi are important tools for investigating the metabolic processes of eukaryotic cells. Neurospora species and Saccharomyces species are typical examples of fungi used by scientists to elucidate the biochemical and metabolic mechanisms of other eukaryotic cells.  
  • They are natural decomposers, and play critical role in carbon cycle and in the recycling of other nutrients in the ecosystem through their mineralization activities.
  • Fungi are generally saprophytes, non-autotrophic and they mainly obtain their food by absorption. Thus, fungi are chemoheterotrophs. This implies that fungi breakdown organic compounds to inorganic compounds to obtain their energy and carbon. 
  • Fungi can breakdown lignin (a complex and recalcitrant polysaccharide molecule).
  • Fungi are important sources of natural antibiotics (for example, penicillin and griseofulvin). Penicillin and griseofulvin are used for the treatment and management of bacterial and fungal infections in humans respectively.
  • Some fungal organisms synthesize organic acids (for example, citric acid) and enzymes that are of great industrial applications.

Further reading

Anaissie E.J, McGinnis M.R, Pfaller M.A (2009). Clinical Mycology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier. London.

Baumgardner D.J (2012). Soil-related bacterial and fungal infections. J Am Board Fam Med, 25:734-744.

Calderone R.A and Cihlar R.L (eds). Fungal Pathogenesis: Principles and Clinical Applications. New York: Marcel Dekker; 2002.

Champoux J.J, Neidhardt F.C, Drew W.L and Plorde J.J (2004). Sherris Medical Microbiology: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. 4th edition. McGraw Hill Companies Inc, USA.       

Gladwin M and Trattler B (2006). Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple. 3rd edition. MedMaster, Inc., Miami, USA.

Larone D.H (2011). Medically Important Fungi: A Guide to Identification. Fifth edition. American Society of Microbiology Press, USA.

Madigan M.T., Martinko J.M., Dunlap P.V and Clark D.P (2009). Brock Biology of Microorganisms, 12th edition. Pearson Benjamin Cummings Inc, USA.

Stephenson S.L (2010). The Kingdom Fungi: The Biology of Mushrooms, Molds and Lichens. First edition. Timber Press.

Sullivan D.J and Moran G.P (2014). Human Pathogenic Fungi: Molecular Biology and Pathogenic Mechanisms. Second edition. American Society of Microbiology Press, USA.

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