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Mycology: Definiton, History & Terms

Instructor: Nicholas Pieri

Nicholas holds a BS in Geology and a master's degree in education. He has taught secondary Earth space science.

In this article, we will look at the science of mycology. We will discuss just what mycology is and dive into its long and fascinating history from prehistoric time to today.

What is mycology and how did it begin?

It has likely happened to all of us. With a slight rumbling in your belly, the urge to make a sandwich strikes. After taking ingredients out of the refrigerator, you reach for the bread on the counter when suddenly your heart sinks. Staring back at you are blots of green and black covering the loaf of carbohydrates you were so ready to eat. Mold.

Moldy Bread
Moldy Bread

Whether you have faced mold on focaccia or battled it in the bathroom, your experience was likely unwelcome. However, fungi like mold are not all bad. In fact, many fungi offer great benefits like antibiotics and beer. But how do we distinguish the helpful from the harmful when it comes to fungi? Enter mycology.

Definition of Mycology

Put simply, mycology is a branch of biology which focuses on fungi. Occupying a taxonomic kingdom all its own, fungi refers to yeasts, molds, and mushrooms found throughout the world. Scientists who specialize in the field of mycology are called mycologists. Mycologists study various fungi to determine their genetic makeup, their place in taxonomy, what role fungi play in the environment, and how they can be of use to humans. Humans have been using fungi for food, medicine, and spiritual rituals dating back thousands of years.

History of Mycology

It is believed that humans have exploited fungi like mushrooms for food since prehistoric times. A 6,000-year-old cave mural near central Spain depicts a large bull accompanied by a row of small mushrooms, indicating they held some importance. While the exact importance of the fungi in the painting can only be speculated, it is known that fungi were used as tinder to cauterize wounds since the time of Hippocrates (440 BC). Early Europeans used various fungi to treat hemorrhoids and bladder problems while the Chinese applied fungi to treat various cancers. Furthermore, shamanistic rituals with fungi have been documented throughout the ancient Americas and Japan.

Ancient Roman Mosaic
Ancient Roman Mosaic

Humans continued exploiting fungi through the centuries without a biological understanding of what they were dealing with. Through the dark ages, fungi were steeped in superstition and folklore. Most believed fungi were the work of the devil, believing malicious fairies held council under mushrooms which appeared overnight in perfect circles.

Fairy Ring
Fairy Ring

They did not mind the benefits of fungi, namely yeast, when creating wine, beer, and bread however! By the time of the Renaissance, fungi were believed to be plants with missing seeds.

As scientific study and inquiry flourished over the next couple of centuries, fungi were studied and cataloged in more detail. Many claim that the study of mycology was born in 1729 when Pietro Antonio Micheli published his research which showed that fungi reproduce through tiny seeds known as spores, not through spontaneous generation as previously thought.

Spores Under Microscope
Spores Under Microscope

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