Economic Importance of Fungi in Society

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  • 0:04 Definition of Fungi
  • 0:49 Fungi in Agriculture
  • 1:49 Fungi in Food
  • 4:12 Fungi in Drinks
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bridgett Payseur

Bridgett has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and teaches college biology.

Have you thanked a fungus recently? Fungi can contribute to the production of food, drink, and medicine. While they may seem small and yucky, fungi make major contributions to the economy.

Definition of Fungi

It's pretty easy to hear the word 'fungus' and think, 'Yuck! What an icky, useless thing!' But what exactly is a fungus? And why do we care about them?

Fungi are organisms that aren't quite plants, and aren't quite animals. They aren't able to walk around like animals do. They can't make their own food like plants do. There's also a lot of variety to fungi. Some, like yeast, are single-celled, and reproduce by simply copying themselves. Others, like mold and mushrooms, can grow quite large and have a more complex life cycle involving spores. While it's easy to consider fungi unimportant at best, and dirty or dangerous at worst, they actually have many important roles in the economy and in society.

Fungi in Agriculture

Fungi are important to the agriculture industry, as certain fungi are necessary for helping plants grow. Mycorrhiza is a word that describes the fungus's association with plant roots. While this may seem like a funny name, 'myco' refers to fungus and 'rhiza' refers to roots, so it actually makes sense.

The mycorrhizas have several benefits to crop production. They are involved in uptake of minerals and may help protect a plant from drought and pests. The fungi in the soil can be destroyed by poor farming practices, so in order to produce as many crops as possible, farmers sometimes need to supplement their soil with mycorrhizal fungi.

As you can imagine, this is incredibly important to the economy and society in general. Food production is vital, and requires a lot of workers. In the United States, agriculture provides nearly 10% of all jobs, and added over $900 billion dollars to the GDP in 2014.

Fungi in Food

1. Mushrooms

Besides growing crops, fungi play other roles in our food supply. The most obvious are the fungi we eat directly: mushrooms. These large and varied fungi can either be cultivated, meaning they are purposely grown, or harvested wild. A word of caution, though: don't eat a wild mushroom unless it has been examined and declared safe by an expert. Many mushrooms are poisonous and easily mistaken for safe varieties.

The most common cultivated mushroom, the white button mushroom, can be grown in many different places, since it doesn't require light for growth. These mushrooms can be grown in caves, but in the United States, most are produced in mushroom houses. To cultivate the mushrooms, a compost made from manure, rotting hay, and other organic wastes is inoculated with mushroom spores. The compost has to be kept in a cool, moist environment in order for the mushrooms to grow properly. Button mushrooms are harvested before the caps have opened, unlike the closely related Portobello mushroom.

2. Cheese

In addition to mushrooms, smaller, less visible fungi have other important jobs in food production. You're probably already aware that mold, another multicellular filament-type of fungus, is used to make certain types of cheeses. Blue cheese has very obvious mold deposits; the color of the mold gives this type of cheese its name. The mold is injected into the cheese, and it grows throughout. Some soft, white cheese, such as Camembert and Brie, are also made with mold. The mold is added to the outside surface of the cheese, and it grows from there. The mold forms the rind on the surface of these cheeses. In both instances, the mold helps produce distinct flavors that wouldn't otherwise be a part of the cheese.

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