30 June 2020

Secret fungi in everyday life

From sourdough to medicine, find out how fungi make our everyday lives possible.

By Ellen McHale

Fungi close up

Fungi are everywhere and are vital to all life on earth. They're on our bodies, in our food and in the ground we walk on.

We take a look at some of the ways fungi are an essential part of our everyday lives. 

Medicine 

Many common medicines are produced using fungi. 

Some fungi naturally produce antibiotics to kill or stop the growth of bacteria. 

Researcher Alexander Fleming first discovered antibiotics in 1928 when he returned from holiday to find a fungus, Penicillium rubens, had contaminated one of his culture plates.

He noticed that no bacteria had grown in the areas around the fungal colonies. Antibiotics produced by the fungus had stopped it from growing. 

This led to the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, as we know it today. 

Penicillin, which fights bacterial infection, is released by strains of the mould Penicillium. Other medicine that come from fungi include cyclosporine from Tolypocladium inflatum (enables organ transplants) and lovastatin from Aspergillus terreus (lowers cholesterol). 

Antibiotics
Antibiotics/Unsplash

The human body

Human bodies are hosts to hundreds of different fungi. 

Fungi are an important part of our microbiomes. Microbiomes are a community of micro-organisms living together in a habitat. In this case the habitat is the human body. 

Fungi, as well as bacteria and viruses, make up the human microbiome. They live all over our body, including in our guts, on our skin, and in our ears.

There are fungi specially adapted to survive in other parts of our bodies, like in our mouths and stomachs. 

The microbiome plays an important role in our health, including supporting our immune systems and controlling digestion. 

Food 

Mushrooms are the most obvious source of fungi in our diets, but fungi are also hiding in many other common foods.

Fungi is what makes cheese, like camembert and blue cheese, ripen. Yeast, a microscopic unicellular fungi, is what makes bread rise, beer and wine ferment, and gives marmite that distinctive taste.

Sourdough bread is made using natural yeast. Wild yeast are everywhere, including on your hands, in the air and on food.

It's made using a starter, which is a mixture of flour and water. Yeast and bacteria naturally present in flour start to ferment, eat the sugars in the flour, and produce CO². This starter is used to make sourdough bread and is what makes it rise. 

Bread
Bread/Unsplash

Even chocolate relies on fungi to get its distinct flavour. Cacao beans go through a fermentation process, where yeast develops the rich chocolately flavour we all know and love. 

The salty condiment soy sauce is brewed using bacteria and fungi, which is added to breakdown the proteins in soy beans and create a delicious flavour. 

Quorn, a popular meat substitute, is another food product that couldn't be made without fungi. It's made by fermenting a strain of a fungus found in soil, called Fusarium venenatum. 

Fungi also help our fruit and vegetables grow. It breaks down organic material, allowing nutrients to be available for plant growth.

A huge variety of the food on our plates are given a helping a hand by our fungal friends. 

Pouring beer
Beer/Unsplash
Chocolate pieces
Chocolate, Charisse Kenion/Unsplash

Soil and plants

Below our feet, there is a web of fungi connecting plants. The bush in your garden is probably connected with the tree next door through their roots. 

Fungi that connect plants by their roots are called mycorrhizal fungi.

It's estimated that around 90% of plants on earth have mycorrhizal fungi associated with their roots.

Thin fungal threads, called mycelium, are like an underground internet which support plants and forests.

Mycorrhizal fungi help plants suck up water, provide nutrients, and protect them against pests and drought. In return, plants provide fungi with sugars from photosynthesis. 

Another group of fungi that give plants a helping hand are called endophytic fungi. They live within plants in the roots, shoots and/or leaves. 

Endophytic fungi existing within plants can improve plant growth and resistance to herbivory, disease, drought and heat-stress. In return, the endophytic fungi have somewhere to live.

From the plants in our gardens, the soil beneath our feet and the food in our fridges, fungi are the secret players in everyday life. 

Hands in soil
Hands in soil/Unsplash
Microscope image of mycorrhizas
Mycorrhizas of false truffles (Elaphomyces spp.) © Laura Martinez-Suz / RBG Kew.

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