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Updated: January 28, 2013 19:10 IST

Fungi foray

P. JEGANATHAN
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On the tree: Growing wild. Photo: Siva Saravanan
The Hindu On the tree: Growing wild. Photo: Siva Saravanan

Found in different shapes and sizes, fungi play an important role in our everyday life.

Did you know that if there was no fungus the world would not exist? A harsh statement, you think. Then take notice of this —if there is no fungus there is no bread and no antibiotics!

The baker makes dough and then allows it to ferment. How does this happen? Fermentation takes place because of yeast, which is a kind of fungus.

Yeasts, moulds and mushrooms are called fungus. Yeasts are single-celled organisms so we can see them only under the microscope. But, moulds can be seen on bread that has been left out in the open for a time. Look closely and you will see several closely packed filaments. These are called hypae. The colourful mushrooms we see among leaf litter, dead wood, fallen tree trunks and dung is a fruiting body of the macro fungi. They come in different shapes and sizes, and are categorised as puff balls, toad stools, jelly fungus, bracket fungus ,and so on.

At work

Fungus is not a plant since it does not have chlorophyll — a pigment which is responsible for photosynthesis in plants. It is not an animal either, although it is closely related to it. Since they lack chlorophyll they cannot produce food for themselves to live on. So they live in two forms, either as saprophytes or as parasites. Saprophytes grow on dead organic matter (such as wood) and decompose it to obtain food for their growth. The parasitic fungus gets its food from living organisms (either plant or an animal). Some of the parasitic fungi may cause disease to the host and hence is harmful to them. But some of them are mutualistic. For example, certain species of fungi develop a close relationship with plants and live in their root. These are called mycorrhiza or root nodules. The fungi decompose leaf litter or other animal matter and provide nutrients to the plants. In turn, they get food from the plant on which they live.

The best place to look for different kind of fungi is the forest floor, especially during the monsoon. Some of the mushrooms found in the wild are poisonous. However, many of them are useful in the manufacture of Penicillium from which we get antibiotics. Some cheeses are also prepared with certain kind of micro-fungi. Edible mushrooms are grown in farms.

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