Ecological Effects of Fungi

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  • 0:07 Fungi Can Be Beneficial
  • 1:44 Fungi Can Be Harmful
  • 3:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

The Fungi Kingdom is very diverse. Many fungi species are beneficial, while others can pose risks to both the environment and us. In this video lesson, you will learn about some of the ways that fungi affect ecology and human health.

Fungi Can Be Beneficial

The Fungi Kingdom is a unique and diverse group of organisms. Fungi not only provide a tasty addition to your stir-fry, they also have many ecological benefits as well. In another lesson, we learned about lichens and mycorrhizae, which are both symbiotic relationships involving fungi.

Lichens are symbioses with photosynthetic organisms, specifically algae and cyanobacteria. Mycorrhizae are symbioses with plant roots. Both types of symbiotic relationships provide nutritional and habitat benefits for the fungi and other organisms involved.

Fungi are also essential recyclers in the environment. As decomposers, they break down organic material and restock the environment with usable nutrients. If we didn't have fungi breaking things down, we'd just have a large pile of dead stuff all over the place, and that certainly wouldn't be good! Not only do we not want to see dead stuff piling up, but the nutrients in those dead things need to get returned to the earth so that they can be used by new, growing plants and animals.

Your stir-fry is just one way that fungi are used in food. Ever had blue cheese? What makes it blue (and so tasty) is the fungi used to ripen the cheese. Truffles are highly prized fungi that people eat, and yeasts are fungi that make beer and bread.

Fungi are also beneficial in the medical and pharmaceutical industry. Some fungi produce antibiotics, like penicillin, that are used to treat bacterial diseases. Some yeasts are also used in biomedical research to produce human proteins.

Fungi Can Be Harmful

While you may enjoy some tasty blue cheese, you probably don't want to eat just any moldy cheese because it will likely make you sick. This is because there are many fungi that are harmful instead of beneficial.

In fact, about 1/3 of the known species of fungi are parasites or pathogens, mostly occurring in or on plants. Have you heard of Dutch elm disease? This was a harmful fungus that was accidentally introduced into the U.S. in the early 1920s, and it eventually destroyed about 70% of the elm trees in the Eastern part of the country.

Fungi are also serious pests in agriculture. Many crop fields these days are made of genetically identical individuals, which makes them the perfect target for disease. About 80% of plant diseases are caused by fungi, and a large variety of fungi are common on grain crops.

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