What are Fungi?
Fungi are one of the most important microorganisms carrying out essential functions which may not be visible but are crucial in accelerating biological processes. These eukaryotic entities are closely related to the fauna and distantly related to the flora with respect to their characteristics and classification. A few features that set fungi apart from other microbes are :
Fungi are osmotrophic – can absorb food
Possess a characteristic hypha at their tips which carry out food exploration
They possess nucleic cells containing chromosomes
They are heterotrophs, cannot synthesize their own food.
Reproduce through spore formation(Mushrooms)
Although we usually think of fungi as food perishing agents, they are economically very beneficial. Fungi are extensively used across industries in various forms and stages of processes.
Let us have a detailed look at the features and economic importance of fungi.
See also: Microbes
Economic Importance Of Fungi
Fungi are an important organism in human life. They play an important role in medicine by yielding antibiotics, in agriculture by maintaining soil fertility, are consumed as food, and forms the basis of many industries. Let us have a look at some of the fields where fungi are really important.
Importance in Human Life
Fungi are very important to humans at many levels. They are an important part of the nutrient cycle in the ecosystem. They also act as pesticides.
Fungi are animal pathogens. Thus they help in controlling the population of pests. These fungi do not infect plants and animals. They attack specifically to some insects. The fungus Beauveria bassiana is a pesticide that is being tested to control the spread of emerald ash borer.
These microbes along with bacteria bring about recycling of matter by decomposing dead matter of plants and excreta of animals in the soil, hence the reuse enriches the soil to make it fertile. The absence of activities of fungi can have an adverse effect on this on-going process by continuous assembly and piling of debris.
Importance in Medicine
Metabolites of fungi are of great commercial importance.
Antibiotics are the substances produced by fungi, useful for the treatment of diseases caused by pathogens. Antibiotics produced by actinomycetes and moulds inhibits the growth of other microbes.
Apart from curing diseases, antibiotics are also used fed to animals for speedy growth and to improve meat quality. Antibiotics are used to preserve freshly produced meat for longer durations.
Penicillin is a widely used antibiotic, lethal for the survival of microbes. The reason it is extensively used is since it has no effect on human cells but kills gram-positive bacteria.
Streptomycin, another antibiotic is of great medicinal value. It is more powerful than Penicillin as it destroys gram-negative entities.
Yield-soluble antibiotics are used to check the growth of yeasts and bacteria and in treating plant diseases.
Administration of Griseofulvin results in the absorption by keratinized tissues and are used to treat fungal skin diseases(ringworms).
Ergot is used in the medicine and the vet industry. It is also used to control bleeding post-child-birth.
LSD – Lysergic acid, is a derivative of ergot and is used in the field of psychiatry.
Consuming fungi called Clavatia prevents cancer of the stomach.
Importance in Agriculture
The fungi plant dynamic is essential in productivity of crops. Fungal activity in farmlands contributes to the growth of plants by about 70%.
Fungi are important in the process of humus formation as it brings about the degeneration of the plant and animal matter.
They are successively used in biological control of pests. Plant pests are used as insecticides to control activities of insects. For example – Empausa sepulchralis, Cordyceps melonhae. Use of fungal pesticides can reduce environmental hazards by a great extent.
Fungi are also used in agricultural research. Some species of fungi are used in the detection of certain elements such as Copper and Arsenic in soil and in the production of enzymes. For instance, biological and genetic research on fungi named Neurospora led to the One Gene One Enzyme hypothesis.
The fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with the plant roots known as mycorrhiza. These are essential to enhance the productivity of farmland. 80-90% of trees could not survive without the fungal partner in the root system.
Importance in Food industry
Some fungi are used in food processing while some are directly consumed. For example – Mushrooms, which are rich in proteins and minerals and low in fat.
Fungi constitute the basis in the baking and brewing industry. They bring about fermentation of sugar by an enzyme called zymase producing alcohol which is used to make wine.
Carbon dioxide- a byproduct in the process, is used as dry ice and also in the baking industry to make the dough (rising and lightening of dough).
Saccharomyces cerevisiae is an important ingredient in bread, a staple food of humans for several years. It is also known as the baker’s yeast.
Related Link: Fungal Cell Wall
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