From the dawn of history, human civilizations have prospered through partnership with the simple single-cell fungus we call yeast. It transforms sugars into alcohol, puffs up bread dough with bubbles of carbon dioxide, and is used to produce an assortment of fermented foods. It has become the workhorse of modern biotechnology as the source of life-saving medicines and industrial chemicals.
Fungi play an important role for a balanced life of flora, fauna, and humans alike. But are they important for us humans, and how are fungi related to animals? Nicholas P. Money, author of Fungi: A Very Short Introduction, tells us 10 things everyone should know about fungi, and the role they play in the world.
Some individuals loom larger in mycological history than they deserve, but, to be fair, this mild indictment applies both to those with, and those without, a Y chromosome. The science of mycology blossomed in Darwin’s time, when German botanist Anton de Bary (1831-1888) began to decode the life cycles of fungi and penned the first textbook on fungi.
Microbiology should be part of everyone’s educational experience. European students deserve to know something about the influence of microscopic forms of life on their existence, as it is at least as important as the study of the Roman Empire or the Second World War. Knowledge of viruses should be as prominent in American high school curricula as the origin of the Declaration of Independence.
Once upon a time, I spent 30 years studying mushrooms and other fungi. Now, as my scientific interests broaden with my waistline, I would like to share three things that I have learned about the meaning of life from thinking about these extraordinary sex organs and the microbes that produce them.