There's a Fungus Among Us: Mushrooms, Molds and Lichens Subject of Book
New book shows multitude of needs served by fungi throughout historyThursday, April 15, 2010
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Fungi fuel hungry humans, cure infections and have changed the course of history, says a University of Arkansas biology professor in his new book on this little examined kingdom.
“People don’t know very much about the third kingdom on the planet,” said Steven L. Stephenson, research professor of biological sciences in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. “But fungi are a lot more interesting than most people realize.”
Stephenson’s book, The Kingdom Fungi: The Biology of Mushrooms, Molds, and Lichens, published by Timber Press, offers a comprehensive overview of these living organisms that are neither plant nor animal. In the book, Stephenson talks about what fungi are, what forms they take, their role in nature and their influence on humans.
“You can’t get away from fungi. The spores are in the air around you right now,” Stephenson said. “But we don’t notice them until they make an obvious appearance.”
An “obvious appearance” occurs when the spores land somewhere that they can find nourishment – be it a rotting log or a piece of bread left on the counter – then colonize and develop a vegetative body, which is the life stage of a fungus most people see in the forest or on neglected food.
Spoiled food aside, fungi perform essential functions in earth’s ecosystems: They decompose plant material and recycle nutrients back into the soil, which allows more plant growth. Without them, forests and grasslands would die. Fungi also live symbiotically with some plants, including orchids and aspens. Without the unseen fungi, neither of these species could survive.
Fungi also cause problems for some plants. The chestnut blight fungus eliminated the chestnut tree from forests in the eastern United States in less than 50 years. And the fungus that caused the potato blight in Europe changed the course of history, causing people to immigrate to foreign countries.
But before blasting fungi for their pathogenic ways, consider this: If you’ve ever had penicillin to treat an infection, you owe your cure to a fungus. And every time you eat leavened bread, or sit down to socialize with a bottle of beer or a glass of wine, it’s time to thank fungi again.
Despite the clear influence of fungi on human culture, these organisms remain understudied.
“We do not know how many fungi there are on the planet,” Stephenson said. Conservative estimates suggest there may be 1.5 million species of fungi, but only about 100,000 have been formally described. Scientists describe about 1,000 new species of fungi each year, but most remain unknown to science.
“We tend to know a lot about fungi where people study fungi,” as in Europe, for instance, Stephenson said. But records in many countries, such as Thailand, and even on some continents, such as Africa, remain scarce. “It’s a matter of not having enough expertise,” he said.
Four Fungi Facts
1. Humongous fungus: The vegetative body of a honey mushroom, Armillaria ostoyae, extends over an area of 2,200 acres in the Malheur National Forest in the Strawberry Mountains of eastern Oregon and is estimated to be 2,000 years old and weigh about 605 tons.
2. Fossil fungi: Viable fungal spores have been isolated from Antarctic ice cores that are more than 1.5 million years old, giving new meaning to the term “living fossil.”
3. Fermenting fungi: The earliest known evidence of leavened bread dates from about 4,000 B.C. in ancient Egypt.
4. Fungi fiction: Mushrooms make an appearance in some of the works of Shakespeare, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Steven L. Stephenson, research professor, biological sciences
J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences
Melissa Blouin, director of science and research communication