As far as we know, fungi have been around at least as long as plants have and both apparently originated as marine organisms perhaps as much as a billion years ago.
Mankind has utilized these interesting organisms for millennia in the making of bread, wines, beers and cheeses. More recently some fungi have proved useful as a source of colorful natural dyes. The role of fungi in disease has been less appreciated by the general public compared to our frequent reminders of the devastation and death wrought by bacteria (the plague, for example) and viruses (influenza and small pox, for instance).
However, we have no vaccines for fungal diseases and fungal diseases of humans and other animals (except for mild skin disorders) are very difficult, if not impossible, to treat.
Recently we’ve learned that amphibians (frogs, toads, and salamanders) in many parts of the world have been devastated to the point of local extinction by fungal epidemics. In our region, some species of bats have suffered a similar fate as a result of a fungus (white nose syndrome) which attacks the animals during hibernation when the animals’ body temperature is low.
Although plant pathologists have long been aware of fungal diseases of crops, trees and decorative plants these diseases have recently become an even greater threat to the world’s crops.
A recent article in Science reports that currently more than 125 million tons of rice, wheat, maize, potatoes, and soybeans are destroyed each year by fungi. This degree of infestation is unfortunately encouraged by modern agricultural practices, increased global travel and trade, and perhaps by global warming as well.
But as with most other groups of organisms, we humans would lose much of what is dear to us were it not for fungi. These versatile organisms not only are valued for their role in the production of the foods and drinks mentioned above but many species are highly valued as food themselves and others for the antibiotics they produce.
Among the former species are the chanterelles, morels, porcini, and truffles. I recently learned that corn smut, an economically important fungal scourge of corn, is also a favored delicacy and that there are folks who raise corn for the specific purpose of raising corn smut for food.
Furthermore fungi play a vital role in the health and drought resistance of our forests and crops, with many species providing trees and shrubs with water and minerals in amounts tree roots would be incapable of alone. While other species are highly important for the work they do in degrading dead wood and vegetation and returning the recoverable nutrients to the soil. If only we were as effective and efficient in recycling our own wastes as our healthy forests are in recycling theirs.
An exciting step in this direction has been taken recently by a small firm located on Green Island near Albany. They are using finely ground agricultural waste to grow a cellulose-degrading fungus in a manner that converts the mixture into lightweight biodegradable forms suitable to use for packaging of articles such as computers and cameras. The result is an excellent substitute for Styrofoam, an un-degradable scourge of our beaches and oceans.
Questions and suggestions from readers are welcomed and will be responded to in future editions of this column. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.