Oh, fungi. What better place to start a new series of articles than with fungi? In homestead life, plants and animals get all the glory, but these useful decomposers should get a turn in the limelight. Indeed, without them, our beloved plants and animals would also cease to be. But why? Let's take a look at that.
What is Fungi, Exactly?
All forms of life are put into one of 6 kingdoms. Currently, these kingdoms are Bacteria, Archaea, Plantae, Animalia, Protista, and Fungi. Each of these kingdoms is unique and very different from each of the others; that is to say that fungi are so different from both plants and animals (and everything else) that they have been given their very own kingdom.
From a scientific perspective, fungi have the following characteristics:
Even within the kingdom of fungi, there are differences. In general, fungi are broken up into different groups within the kingdom based on the spore-producing structures that they form. However, these structures are not visible to the naked eye, so the average person would not be able to easily know which group to put it in. The four groups within the kingdom are:
When most people think of fungi they think of mushrooms. And while this is true, it is not the complete picture. In truth, the beloved mushroom is actually just one part of a fungus' body. Most of a fungus' body is unseen.
The body of a fungus is made up of a network of very fine filaments called hyphae (pronounced high-fee). These hyphae are woven into a network which is called a mycellium. This mycellium is the body of the fungus. To visualize this, picture a big pot of spaghetti. After you cook it and put it in on your plate, the strands of pasta basically form one big solid mat (a mycellium); however, the individual strands of spaghetti (the hyphae) are still visible. It is a rough analogy, but it gets the point across.
The mycellium is the main body of the fungus and is unnoticed by most people because it grows underground. And it is not necessarily because it is small, either. There are some mycologists (scientists who study fungi) who say that a mycellium from a single individual fungus can span an entire forest floor! That would make that single fungus the largest organism on earth in terms of size and mass. It is just that the individual filaments are so thin that they are hard to see.
When it comes time to reproduce - usually when it has run out of food or close to it - the fungus will produce a fruiting body that produces spores; this fruiting body is called a mushroom. It is still made up of hyphae and is an above-ground extension of the mycellium which is growing underground. A single one of these mushrooms will produce millions upon millions of spores and release them into the environment. If they land on an appropriate place, these spores will germinate and produce hyphae that will grow into a new mycellium.
Types of Fungi
As mentioned above, most fungi are multicellular which means that their bodies are composed of more than one cell. This includes all of the following:
Fungi whose bodies are composed of only one cell are known as yeast.
Importance of Fungi: Decomposition
Decomposition is the breaking down of dead or decaying organic matter. In this definition, organic does not mean stuff that was grown without synthetic chemicals and such; organic is a scientific designation for matter that contains the element carbon. For example, organic chemistry is the study of chemicals that contain the element carbon. All living things are made up of many different organic compounds, so living matter (or once living matter) is organic from a scientific perspective.
Decomposition is important because it takes all of these organic compounds and puts it back into the soil so that plants can get at the nutrients again. Without decomposers like fungi, these nutrients would be forever locked up in the bodies of living things or once living things. Eventually, there would be piles of dead things and no new life could grow because all of the chemicals necessary to make life are locked away in those bodies with nothing to free them. That is a scary thought! Yet, that would be the world without fungi (and bacteria and some protists).
So, decomposers are an integral part of this beautifully designed world in which we live. The earth upon which we live has been designed to recycle matter over and over again. This means that the same material that was here during creation is still here now but just in a different form! Amazing.
Importance of Fungi: Fermentation
Ah, fermentation. I will do a whole "The Science of: Fermentation" later, but I need to at least mention it here as fungi are the main organisms responsible for this wonderful process. There are two different types of fermentation: alcoholic and lactic acid. We use fungi to perform alcoholic fermentation.
The general process taking place in alcoholic fermentation is the breaking down of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. We then use these two products to our advantage. In some products, like bread, we only really want the carbon dioxide (which makes those lovely pockets in bread to give it its amazing mouthfeel), and the alcohol produced evaporates off. In other products, we want just the alcohol, so we let the carbon dioxide leave the solution while concentrating the alcohol. And in some, like beer, we want both the alcohol and the carbon dioxide (which gives beer its carbonation).
And to think none of these products would be possible without a specific type of single-celled fungus known as yeast.
Importance of Fungi: Mycorrhizae
Finally, I can't do a good scientific post on fungi without mentioning mycorrhizae. It sounds like a very complicated word, but it is actually made up of two different roots: "myc" and "rhiz". In science, the root "myc" means fungus, and the root "rhiz" means root. So, when you put these two together, you get "fungus root" which tells you what it is. Mycorrhizae is a relationship between the hyphae of fungus and the roots of plants. (In the picture below, the fungal hyphae are the very thin strands, and the root is the thick V-shaped object). Each of the two benefit from this relationship. The fungus is able to get sugars from the plant, and the plant is better able to absorb water and minerals from the ground because of the fungus. It is a match made in heaven...err, the earth, actually.
Much research has been done on this beneficial relationships. It has been clearly seen that plants are better able to weather droughts and other climate problems when they have these mycorrhizal fungus around their roots. As such, this mutualistic relationship will probably become even more critical in the years to come as our climate is shifting in ways that are only beginning to be seen.
Oh, and if you put a fungicide on your crops, you are not only killing the mildews and things like that, but also the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi found around the plants roots. So, just consider that the next time you think about using those chemicals on your plants.
So there you go. A little introduction into the science behind one of the most important members of our homesteads. Hopefully, you will never look at these amazing creations in the same way again.
We are a husband and wife who are trying to live simply. We are learning much as we transition from life in the city to life in the country. Come along with us, and maybe you can also learn a thing or two as well.
We love writing for these fine folks as well!
|Simple Life Homestead||
Simple Life Homestead