The importance of fungi
Fungi are tremendously important to human society and the planet we live on. Yet, despite their extraordinary impacts on our lives, both directly and indirectly, relatively little is known about them.
Where to begin?
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 terrestrial ecosystems, hidden from view but inseparable from the processes that sustain life on the planet.
Fungi, especially the brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, provide us with numerous foods and beverages, including staples like bread and beer.
The brewer’s yeast is not only important for the production of delicious consumables but is nutritious, being especially rich in vitamin B12. Some moulds are important in the maturation of cheeses like blue cheeses (the colour comes from the mould’s spores) and for providing a meat-like flavor in the production of many rice, wheat, and soybean products (for example tempeh, miso, soy sauce) used extensively in Asian cuisine. Similarly, fungi are even used as a meat substitute in products mimicking meat, like Quorn®.
Edible mushrooms are also common 'vegetables' that provide an important source of dietary fibre and complete protein: fungal proteins provide all of the essential amino acids, a consequence of their close relation to animals. Studies have shown that the protein content of the edible penny bun mushroom (Boletus edulis, also known as porcino, cep, king bolete) rivals and even exceeds some meat. This fact is especially important for people who subsist on wild-collected foods and have limited access to other sources of protein. Moreover, some mushrooms used as food may have medicinal properties, providing a smattering of health benefits.
Fungi provide extraordinarily powerful medicines that have revolutionised human health and have massive economic worth (eg antibiotics, immunosuppressants, cholesterol medicine). The penicillins and cephalosporins, cyclosporine, and statin drugs are all based on natural chemicals produced by fungi.
Mushrooms are also important ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and myriad therapeutic activities have been attributed to them, including anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and even anti-tumour effects.
Science and industry
Fungi have industrial applications as well and several of the 'model organisms' which enable our understanding of fundamental biology like genetics and development, are fungi. Entrepreneurs are applying fungi to provide sustainable and biodegradable structural products such as building materials, packing materials, and even vehicle bumpers.
Many enzymes produced by fungi are valuable in the paper pulp industry, for bioremediation, and even for fashion: fungal enzymes are used to soften and fade denim jeans. Scientifically, the mould Neurospora crassa and the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae (brewer’s yeast) are model organisms used all over the world in basic and applied science laboratories. And, in 1996, Saccharomyces cerevisiae became the first eukaryote to have its genome sequenced.
Needed by plants
Fungi are also the humble accomplices in the domination of the planet’s soils by plants: most plants rely on fungi in or on their roots to facilitate water and nutrient uptake – in fact, it is thought that root-associated fungi enabled the initial colonisation of land by plants nearly 600 million years ago. They are also the main decomposers of organic material, providing an essential service to life on the planet by recycling nutrients.
Not all fungi are good: they can be major pests of forests, crops, to humans and, increasingly, are causing pandemic infections in wild animals like amphibians and bats, driving some of them to extinction.