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Biology Week 2017: 10 facts about fungus

Organised by the Royal Society of Biology, Biology Week (7-15th October) is a nationwide celebration of the biological sciences, from microbes to photosynthesis, from yeast to zooplankton. The 8th October is UK Fungus Day, so to celebrate this, and Biology Week as a whole, we’ve put together a list of things you may not know about fabulous fungi!

1. Fungi and fungus-like organisms encompass an estimated 1.5 million species. However, fewer than 5% (80,000) have been described.

2. A gruesome fact – Madurella mycetomatis is a type of fungus that erodes bones. This tropical mycosis, which spreads from a splinter wound in bare skin, can grow beneath human skin for months or years. Madurella will eventually erode bones, producing a “moth-eaten” appearance on X-rays. This disease will cause immobility and, if started in the head, neck, or chest, can prove fatal.

3. The cacao plant (the raw source of chocolate), is susceptible to multiple fungal diseases, including witches’ broom, frosty pod rot, and black pod. These diseases have been known to devastate some cacao crops. One of the most devastating instances of this was in the mid-1990s, when the fungus Crinipellis perniciosa caused Brazil’s ranking in global cacao production to drop from second to fifth place as a result.

Spores coming out of puffball fungus by Kalyanvarma. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Zygomycete and ascomycete fungi have some of the most dramatic ways of spreading spores in the fungal kingdom. These fungi spread their spores through their own pressurized “squirt guns” that can shoot spore-filled balls called sporangia over distances greater than two meters.

5. Medical treatments or drugs which work for one individual may not necessarily produce the same benefits for another, and this variance in drug responses can have a genetic base. Researchers are therefore using baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) as a model to calculate how genetic variation impacts the effectiveness of pharmaceutical treatments.

6. Ash dieback is a disease caused by the invasive alien fungal pathogen Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which often has devastating consequences for the survival, growth and wood quality of ash trees.

7. Mushroom cultivation is a lot more complex to undertake than many people think. It involves adhering to precise procedures throughout, including during the selection of the appropriate species, ensuring a good-quality fruiting culture, preparation of suitable compost, and harvesting the mushrooms themselves.

8. Yeast, a type of fungus, is widely used in the brewing process for beer, and increased experimentation to meet customer demand for product diversity, has led to a greater appreciation of the role of yeast in determining the character of beer. Understanding the different properties of yeast has the potential to create new beer flavors, in addition to producing flavorsome non-alcoholic beers.

9. A large number of pathogenic microorganisms (fungal and bacterial) cause rice diseases that lead to enormous yield losses worldwide. This is troubling, because rice is a staple food for more than half the world’s population. Thankfully, over the last 20 years, extensive research has been done into the reasons for these diseases, and new management strategies are being implemented to try and combat them.

10. The earliest European description of Central Mexican mushroom rituals is that of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the sixteenth-century Franciscan chronicler of Aztec civilization. The Aztec called the intoxicating mushrooms teonanacatl, “divine flesh” or “flesh of the gods.” According to Sahagún’s informants, when the priests and their communicants consumed mushrooms (with honey), they ate no more food but only had cacao (chocolate) drinks during the night. When the mushrooms took effect, they danced, then they wept. When the effects left them, they consulted among themselves and told one another what they had seen in visions.

Featured image credit: Fungus by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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