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Hyphae: Definition, Function & Types

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  • 0:00 What Are Hyphae?
  • 0:45 Function
  • 3:20 Types
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wendy McDougal

Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.

Hyphae are the thread-like filaments that make up a multicellular fungus and release enzymes to absorb nutrients from food sources. Learn more about hyphae here.

What are Hyphae?

The fungi kingdom includes a wide variety of organisms. From mushrooms to mold, we encounter fungi in many different aspects of our lives. Although each fungus can be extremely varied in terms of appearance, all multicellular members in this group share a common structural component. All of them are composed of tiny, feathery strands called hyphae.

Hyphae growing on a tomato
Mold on Tomato

On some types of fungus, the hyphae strands are easy to see. Take mold, for instance. If you were to closely examine the white patch of fuzz on some old food, you'd notice the hair-like filaments rising from the surface, like tiny soldiers at attention. Upon even closer examination with a microscope, you'd also see that most hyphae are made up of several cells. Let's take a look at the function and structure of these tiny components.

Function

Fungi are heterotrophic, meaning they cannot make their own food. As a result, they attach themselves to food sources and absorb nutrients, adding new growth in the process to their food hosts.

To better understand this concept, let's explore the process by which mold seems to magically appear on a piece of fruit. Picture a fruit bowl, filled with ripe oranges and basking in the bright light of a sunny kitchen. After several days of sitting on the counter, one starts to go bad. How does this happen, and where exactly did the mold come from?

The answer lies in a microscopic body called a spore. As the reproductive cells of fungi, spores are constantly flying through the air. When a lucky spore lands in just the right place, it will begin to grow. The perfect landing zone for this spore is a food source that contains moisture and a relative amount of warmth. Given its location and moisture-rich content, the orange makes a fitting new home for the mold spore.

Spores under a microscope
Fungal Spores

This is where the hyphae begin to emerge. When the spore lands and germinates in the orange, a small tubular extension starts to grow. This new cell will form a strand of hyphae, complete with a nucleus, organelles and cytoplasm. The tube is similar in structure to a straw, but instead of plastic, its firm cell wall, or exterior, is made of a strong substance called chitin.

The hyphae can now get to work on that piece of fruit. Hyphae are crucial to the absorption of nutrients because they contain a secret weapon: digestive enzymes. When the enzymes are released, they break down food so that its molecules can be easily absorbed. As the hyphae take in their nutrients, they add new cells and extend upward.

In addition to growing upward, hyphae also branch outward, forming an extensive network that resembles the branches of a tree. Collectively, this large mass of hyphae is known as a mycelium. The ability to extend outward gives hyphae the mobility to seek out more food sources, much like tendrils of ivy seek out new territory. The hyphae growing on the orange will eventually extend far enough to touch an adjacent orange, which is beneficial for the mold, but terrible for your fruit bowl.

Branched hyphae under a microscope
Hyphae

Some hyphae are also important in the reproductive process in that they produce new spores. Upon release, the spores catch air currents and travel to new locations, which continues the spread of the mold as new colonies arise when another suitable environment is found.

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