Ascomycota: Habitat & Facts

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, we'll look at a group of fungi with more than 30,000 members: ascomycota. You'll learn about their habitat, as well as some interesting facts regarding their history and growth.

A Global Phenomenon

If you were to walk from a desert to a rain-forest, and then to the ocean, what would you expect to see? At the very least, you would expect to see very different forms of life as you moved to a new area, right? Yet, there is one consistency between habitats that you may not be aware of. No matter where you go, there is likely to be at least one species of ascomycota.

Ascomycota is the name of a phylum of fungi that contains a majority of the world's fungal species. The exact number of species is debated, but there are at least 30,000 species, and possibly more than 65,000. Individual members are known as ascomycetes, and they are sometimes called sac fungi because of the way they reproduce. They grow an ascus, which resembles a sac, and this contains the spores they release instead of seeds. Ascomycetes cover a range of types, from the yeast used in baking, to edible mushrooms like morels and truffles. There are also less beneficial species, such as the plant disease called powdery mildew, and the fungus Claviceps purpurea that causes ergotism in humans. With such an array, it is no surprise that they cover a range of habitat types.

This scarlet elf cap is an ascomycete.
Scarlet elf cap

Habitat Specifics

Ascomycetes can be found in every type of habitat, including both freshwater and saltwater environments. In aquatic habitats, ascomycetes typically live as a parasite on coral, algae, or other living organisms. Some species live on decaying matter instead. They serve an important function as decomposers, breaking down organic material, so it doesn't build up. This is a function for some ascomycetes in non-aquatic environments as well.

Ascomycota species can be found on dry land around the world, in habitats ranging from tropical and temperate forests to grasslands and beyond. There are even species of ascomycota that live in extreme environments. One example is Coccidioides immitis. This species lives in the deserts of North America, and can cause respiratory disease in humans.

Survival Mechanisms

One reason ascomycetes can survive in such a range of environments is because they are highly adaptable; especially those that live in extreme climates. The ascomycetes in desert-like areas are often single-celled, but they group together in colonies. These species are able to pause their own growth and wait until the environment is better suited to resume normal activity, such as after a rain.

Additionally, some ascomycetes can anchor themselves to rock and grow down into cracks, protecting them from the harsh outside air. Some can even grow outer ''shells'' for protection by adding minerals to their surface cell structure.

Other Interesting Facts

One form of ascomycota, you might see as part of a lichen. Lichen are made when a fungus and an algae form a symbiotic relationship. Ascomycetes make up the fungal half of the majority of types of lichen.

Lichen are formed by a fungus and an algae.

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