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What are the Characteristics of Fungi? Its Basis, Uses and Harmful Effect to Man

Updated on June 13, 2014
school walk mushrooms via morguefile
school walk mushrooms via morguefile | Source

Fungi are member of a diverse group of organism that exhibit distinct difference in characteristics of plants for the get their food from external sources by absorbing nutrients. Fungi have been present for almost 550 million years and may have been evolved even earlier from the actual date it was recorded. There are 1.5 million of fungus species and almost 100,000 have been identified. Because of its unique characteristics, scientist created another kingdom called Mycetae (Kingdom Fungi)

There are thousands of varied types of fungi that can be found in soil, wood, decaying organic materials and living organism such as plants and animals. They start from a very small unicellular organism to multicellular organism. Some fungi are considered among the longest living organism like lichen; a living partner of a fungus and an alga and biologist believed that it had been more than 4.500 years old. Some common fungi include:

  • Mushrooms
  • Puffballs
  • Truffles
  • Yeast
  • Mildews

However, some fungus-like organisms which are also known as “oomycetes” have been placed now in the Kingdom Protista. This fungus-like organism includes:

  • Downy mildews
  • Water molds
  • Slime molds

General Characteristic of Fungi

Fungi do not have the ability to synthesize chlorophyll or even manufacture their own food. That is why fungi cannot be grouped with Kingdom Plantae. Kingdom fungi are approximately 100,000 recorded species and they are described:

  1. Fungi do not have true roots, leaves and stems
  2. Fungi do not have green pigment chlorophyll

In first characteristics, fungi are likely the same twomasses that lack true roots, leaves and stems, but since mosses have chlorophyll the second characteristic doesn’t fit. This chlorophyll allows mosses to manufacture their own food which is not possible forfungi. Since fungi cannot make their own food they are considered a heterotrophic organism?

However, fungi have a different way in obtaining their food. Like for example, a carabao eats grass while fungi obtain food on a decaying log. This mode of getting food is known as saprotrophic nutrition that comes from the Greek word “Sapros” which means “rotten”. In this matter, fungi are called saprotrophs.

Fungi have threadlike-bodies that are also called “Mycelia” (singular: mycelium). This mycelia or filaments are called “hyphae”. A bread mold has three kinds of hyphae:

  • Rhizoids
  • Stolons
  • Sporangiophores

Sporangiophores grow upward and develop reproductive cells called “spores”. Some fungi are firm because their cellulose cell walls have a substancecalled “chitin”. This chitin is the same that is found in exoskeleton of some insects like beetles.

Mushroom and Carabao
Mushroom and Carabao | Source

Basis for Grouping Fungi

The basis for grouping fungi has been long debated and still in development. In 1729, the first description of fungi was published by an Italian botanist named Pier Antonio Micheli. It was initially grouped in the Kingdome Plantae and mycology as a field of fungus that is developed as a branch of botany. But in 1960’s, mycologist established a different Kingdom—Kingdom Fungi.

Scientist classified fungi based on the type of spores and fruiting-bodies they produced. Mycologists have divided kingdom fungi into five main phyla:

1. Phylum Chytridiomycota

  • Commonly called “Chytrids” with approximately 800 species.
  • Among the smallest and simplest fungi
  • With central body that contains small tube-like extension
  • Develops a structure called “sporangium” that has motile spores that aids for locomotion.
  • Grow in damp soils and water as saprobes
  • Parasites for plants, animals, protist, algae and some fungi

2. Phylum Zygomycota

  • Commonly known aszygomycetes”
  • Zygomycota means zygospore-forming fungus
  • Have approximately 900 terrestrial species
  • It includes plenty of significant decomposers, mycorrhizal fungi and some parasites of insects like spiders.
  • Black bread mold is the most common zygomycetes that can be found on some foods such as fruit and bread.
  • Zygomycotes form thick-walled zygospores for them to reproduce sexually

3. Phylum Ascomycota

  • Also called as “sac fungi” with 50,000 known species that makes them the largest group of fungi.
  • Comes from the Greek word “Askos” which means bag and “Mykes” which means fungus/mushroom that refers to the shape of the spores case like sac with an opening where mature spores are release.
  • It includes lichens, yeast, morels, cup fungi, truffles, neurospora and powdery mildews
  • Spores are covered with baglike or saclike structure called “asci”
  • Known to produce tiny powdery asexual spores called “conidia”

Fungi with threadlike bodies
Fungi with threadlike bodies | Source

4. Phylum Basidiomycota

  • Also known as “club fungi” with approximately 25,000 species of mushrooms, puffballs, bird’s nest fungi, rusts, jelly fungi, smuts, shelf and basket fungi.
  • Its name comes from the Greek word “Basis” which means “base” and “Mykes” which means “mushroom or fungi”.
  • This phylum consists of important plant parasites, saprobes and mutualist that includes decay fungi that cause brown rot or white rot wood.
  • Basidiospores are named for their specialized club-shaped reproductive cells called “basidia” that can line gills or tubes on the side of fleshy fruit bodies.
  • Certain of them can produce spores within a tube-like underground of fruit bodies which is known to be “false truffles”.

5. Phylum Deuteromycota

  • Also known as “imperfect fungi” that consist of 25,000 species.
  • They reproduce asexually through spores called “conidia” on a specialized hyphae called “conidiophores”
  • Includes many molds like penicillium that is used to develop the first antibiotic and some are plant pathogens even in animals such as ringworm.

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Importance of Fungi

Fungi are among the decomposers of organic matter in the ecosystem, it breaks down dead animals and plants, waste organic matter into their chemical components. They play a vital role in recycling of carbon and minerals and in maintaining the equilibrium of life in the biosphere.

Fungi such as bacteria and slime molds are the major decomposers of the ecosystem. Decomposition of organic matters results:

  1. Bring back soluble nutrients to the soil.
  2. Discharge large amounts of carbon dioxide gas to the air which is used by autotrophs (Plants) for photosynthesis.
  3. Some fungi are source of food such as the common field mushroom (Agaricus Campestris) and (Auricularia polytrica). These fungi grow in wilds but in Philippines, it is being cultivated now by many enterprising Filipinos.


Source of Food (Uses in Industry)

  • Edible mushrooms are used as food that adds flavors, texture and nutrients on meat dishes and cuisines. Some have gained popularity in North America and some of these are: portabella, cremini, oyster, morel, chantarelle, wood or tree ear, truffle, matsutake, and shiitake.
  • Yeast a type of fungus, is used in food for it is rich in protein and also a good source of vitamin B. Some is added to sauces, soups and in breakfast beverages such as chocolate and milk.
  • Yeast is used in fermenting wine, soybeans and fruit juices. It is also used in manufacturing of beer and is also added to dough to make bread expand and rise and have lighter texture.
  • Some molds are used to ripen cheese like in camembert, brie and blueveined Roquefort.

Source of Medicine (For Manufacturing)

  • Penicillium, a type of fungus used in synthesizing antibiotics such as “Penicillin” that was discovered by a British bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming. Other are griseofulvin, cyclosporine, and cephalosporin that is use in treatments to fight fungal and bacteria; growth.
  • Some fungi are used in producing biologically active compounds that useful in manufacturing alcohols such as ethanol and glycerol that is made during fermentation.
  • Use as plant growth regulators such as giberellic acid that is widely used in advocating plant and fruit development.

Some fungi are used as an important tool in maintaining the orderliness and cleanliness of the environment. Some are used for bioremediation, in which a number of fungi are mixed up with the polluted water/soil to detoxify and decompose organic materials. Some of these fungi are:

  • Aspergillus
  • Fusarium
  • Rhizopus
  • Mucor
  • Penicillium
  • Trichoderma.

Harm of Fungi to Man

Disease-Causing Organism

There are approximately 100,000 diseases of plants and almost 70% of it is major crop diseases that are caused by fungi that lead to economic loss every year. These fungi cause massive disease to mature plants, aging plants, and seedlings and even in seeds that result in depleting growth and reproduction of crops. Some of them attack trees on forest and wooden infrastructures.

Some pathogenic fungi cause athlete’s foot (Trichophyton interdigitale), ringworms and scalp infection (Tinea capitis) and some can even cause human respiratory diseases.

Cause Spoilage of Food

We all know that fungi are decomposers and they play an important role in maintain the balance in the ecosystem however, fungi may also put people to danger by causing food and farm products to rot. Like for example:

  • Rhisopus (black bread mold) and Penicillium (blue and green molds) attack bread
  • Some attacks vegetables and fruits. Other fungi cause spoilage of canned foods, cooked foods, preserve foods such as jams etc.

A Pest and Malignant Organism

Some fungi can also attack shoes, clothing’s, and film slides and camera lenses. Certain fungi are poisonous such as poisonous Amanita which is a type of mushroom.


References; Science and Technology by Lilia M. Rabago Ph. D , Crescensia C. Joaquin Ph.D, Catherine B. Lagunzad , PH. D, Encarta

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    • profile image

      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      For me, the best thing about mushrooms are the ones you can eat. A pizza just isn't a good pizza unless it has mushrooms on it. I enjoyed your hub because it's been a while since I did any studies about mushrooms and it was a good review of the information.

    • KenDeanAgudo profile image
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      Kenneth C Agudo 3 years ago from Tiwi, Philippines

      Thunk you sheila, I am really interested about our ecosystem and the life on it. We also eat mushroom of bamboo tree and it taste like meat and it is really delicious. In pizza the mushroom on it is quite soft. And when i taste it theirs no taste haha

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