5-4-2. Characteristics of Fungi
Although humans have used yeasts and mushrooms since prehistoric times, until recently, the biology of fungi was poorly understood. Up until the mid-20th century, many scientists classified fungi as plants. Fungi, like plants, arose mostly sessile and seemingly rooted in place. They possess a stem-like structure similar to plants, as well as having a root-like fungal mycelium in the soil. In addition, their mode of nutrition was poorly understood. Progress in the field of fungal biology was the result of
Mycologists are biologists who study fungi. Mycology is a branch of microbiology, and many mycologists start their careers with a degree in microbiology. To become a mycologist, a bachelor's degree in a biological science (preferably majoring in microbiology) and a master's degree in mycology are minimally necessary. Mycologists can specialize in taxonomy and fungal genomics, molecular and cellular biology, plant pathology, biotechnology, or biochemistry. Some medical microbiologists concentrate on the study of infectious diseases caused by fungi (mycoses). Mycologists collaborate with zoologists and plant pathologists to identify and control difficult fungal infections, such as the devastating chestnut blight, the mysterious decline in frog populations in many areas of the world, or the deadly epidemic called white nose syndrome, which is decimating bats in the Eastern United States.
Government agencies hire mycologists as research scientists and technicians to monitor the health of crops, national parks, and national forests. Mycologists are also employed in the private sector by companies that develop chemical and biological control products or new agricultural products, and by companies that provide disease control services. Because of the key role played by fungi in the fermentation of alcohol and the preparation of many important foods, scientists with a good understanding of fungal physiology routinely work in the food technology industry. Oenology, the science of wine making, relies not only on the knowledge of grape varietals and soil composition, but also on a solid understanding of the characteristics of the wild yeasts that thrive in different wine-making regions. It is possible to purchase yeast strains isolated from specific grape-growing regions. The great French chemist and microbiologist, Louis Pasteur, made many of his essential discoveries working on the humble brewer’s yeast, thus discovering the process of fermentation.
Cell Structure and Function
Fungi are eukaryotes, and as such, have a complex cellular organization. As eukaryotes, fungal cells contain a membrane-bound nucleus. The DNA in the nucleus is wrapped around histone proteins, as is observed in other eukaryotic cells. A few types of fungi have structures comparable to bacterial plasmids (loops of DNA); however, the horizontal transfer of genetic information from one mature bacterium to another rarely occurs in fungi. Fungal cells also contain mitochondria and a complex system of internal membranes, including the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus.
Unlike plant cells, fungal cells do not have chloroplasts or chlorophyll. Many fungi display bright colors arising from other cellular pigments, ranging from red to green to black. The poisonous Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) is recognizable by its bright red cap with white patches (Figure 1). Pigments in fungi are associated with the cell wall and play a protective role against ultraviolet radiation. Some fungal pigments are toxic.
Like plant cells, fungal cells have a thick cell wall. The rigid layers of fungal cell walls contain complex polysaccharides called chitin and glucans. Chitin, also found in the exoskeleton of insects, gives structural strength to the cell walls of fungi. The wall protects the cell from desiccation and predators. Fungi have plasma membranes similar to other eukaryotes, except that the structure is stabilized by ergosterol: a steroid molecule that replaces the cholesterol found in animal cell membranes. Most members of the kingdom Fungi are nonmotile. Flagella are produced only by the gametes in the primitive Phylum Chytridiomycota.
The vegetative body of a fungus is a unicellular or multicellular
Most fungi are multicellular organisms. They display two distinct morphological stages: the vegetative and reproductive. The vegetative stage consists of a tangle of slender thread-like structures called
Most fungal hyphae are divided into separate cells by endwalls called
Fungi thrive in environments that are moist and slightly acidic, and can grow with or without light. They vary in their oxygen requirement. Most fungi are
Like animals, fungi are heterotrophs; they use complex organic compounds as a source of carbon, rather than fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as do some bacteria and most plants. In addition, fungi do not fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Like animals, they must obtain it from their diet. However, unlike most animals, which ingest food and then digest it internally in specialized organs, fungi perform these steps in the reverse order; digestion precedes ingestion. First, exoenzymes are transported out of the hyphae, where they process nutrients in the environment. Then, the smaller molecules produced by this external digestion are absorbed through the large surface area of the mycelium. As with animal cells, the polysaccharide of storage is glycogen, rather than starch, as found in plants.
Fungi are mostly
Some fungi are parasitic, infecting either plants or animals. Smut and Dutch elm disease affect plants, whereas athlete’s foot and candidiasis (thrush) are medically important fungal infections in humans. In environments poor in nitrogen, some fungi resort to predation of nematodes (small non-segmented roundworms). Species of Arthrobotrys fungi have a number of mechanisms to trap nematodes. One mechanism involves constricting rings within the network of hyphae. The rings swell when they touch the nematode, gripping it in a tight hold. The fungus penetrates the tissue of the worm by extending specialized hyphae called
Fungi reproduce sexually and/or asexually. Perfect fungi reproduce both sexually and asexually, while imperfect fungi reproduce only asexually (by mitosis).
In both sexual and asexual reproduction, fungi produce spores that disperse from the parent organism by either floating on the wind or hitching a ride on an animal. Fungal spores are smaller and lighter than plant seeds. The giant puffball mushroom bursts open and releases trillions of spores. The huge number of spores released increases the likelihood of landing in an environment that will support growth (Figure 5).
Fungi reproduce asexually by fragmentation, budding, or producing spores. Fragments of hyphae can grow new colonies. Somatic cells in yeast form buds. During budding (a type of cytokinesis), a bulge forms on the side of the cell, the nucleus divides mitotically, and the bud ultimately detaches itself from the mother cell (Figure 6).
The most common mode of asexual reproduction is through the formation of asexual spores, which are produced by one parent only (through mitosis) and are genetically identical to that parent (Figure 7). Spores allow fungi to expand their distribution and colonize new environments. They may be released from the parent thallus either outside or within a special reproductive sac called a
There are many types of asexual spores. Conidiospores are unicellular or multicellular spores that are released directly from the tip or side of the hypha. Other asexual spores originate in the fragmentation of a hypha to form single cells that are released as spores; some of these have a thick wall surrounding the fragment. Yet others bud off the vegetative parent cell. Sporangiospores are produced in a sporangium (Figure 8).
Sexual reproduction introduces genetic variation into a population of fungi. In fungi, sexual reproduction often occurs in response to adverse environmental conditions. During sexual reproduction, two mating types are produced. When both mating types are present in the same mycelium, it is called
Although there are many variations in fungal sexual reproduction, all include the following three stages (Figure 7). First, during
Link to Learning
Review the characteristics of fungi by visiting this interactive site from Wisconsin-online.
Fungi are eukaryotic organisms that appeared on land more than 450 million years ago. They are heterotrophs and contain neither photosynthetic pigments such as chlorophyll, nor organelles such as chloroplasts. Because fungi feed on decaying and dead matter, they are saprobes. Fungi are important decomposers that release essential elements into the environment. External enzymes digest nutrients that are absorbed by the body of the fungus, which is called a thallus. A thick cell wall made of chitin surrounds the cell. Fungi can be unicellular as yeasts, or develop a network of filaments called a mycelium, which is often described as mold. Most species multiply by asexual and sexual reproductive cycles and display an alternation of generations. Such fungi are called perfect fungi. Imperfect fungi do not have a sexual cycle. Sexual reproduction involves plasmogamy (the fusion of the cytoplasm), followed by karyogamy (the fusion of nuclei). Meiosis regenerates haploid individuals, resulting in haploid spores.
Which polysaccharide is usually found in the cell wall of fungi?
Which of these organelles is not found in a fungal cell?
The wall dividing individual cells in a fungal filament is called a
During sexual reproduction, a homothallic mycelium contains
What are the evolutionary advantages for an organism to reproduce both asexually and sexually?
Asexual reproduction is fast and best under favorable conditions. Sexual reproduction allows the recombination of genetic traits and increases the odds of developing new adaptations better suited to a changed environment.
Compare plants, animals, and fungi, considering these components: cell wall, chloroplasts, plasma membrane, food source, and polysaccharide storage. Be sure to indicate fungi’s similarities and differences to plants and animals.
Animals have no cell walls; fungi have cell walls containing chitin; plants have cell walls containing cellulose. Chloroplasts are absent in both animals and fungi but are present in plants. Animal plasma membranes are stabilized with cholesterol, while fungi plasma membranes are stabilized with ergosterol, and plant plasma membranes are stabilized with phytosterols. Animals obtain N and C from food sources via internal digestion. Fungi obtain N and C from food sources via external digestion. Plants obtain organic N from the environment or through symbiotic N-fixing bacteria; they obtain C from photosynthesis. Animals and fungi store polysaccharides as glycogen, while plants store them as starch.