The Economic Importance of Ascomycota

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 take a look at the economic importance of Ascomycota fungi. You'll see how we use them in food and medicine, and learn about some of their negative economic impacts.

The Value of Fungi

If you were asked how important fungi are to our society, your initial response might be 'not very.' However, if you look at the fungi in the phylum Ascomycota, you have to change your answer.

Members of this phylum are called ascomycetes, and there are more than 30,000 different species included. As you would expect, this large a group covers a wide range of types of fungi, including yeasts, edible mushrooms, and the fungi that produce penicillin.

Positive Impacts

First, let's examine the positive economic impacts of ascomycetes. These fungi produce things we use all the time in areas of life you might not expect, including food and medicine.

Fungi in Food

One widely used group of ascomycetes is yeast. Yeast is used to produce alcohol and make bread rise, so it is very important to the baking and beverage industries. Ascomycetes can also be directly edible, as in the case of morel mushrooms. Ascomycetes can be used in food production as well. Members of the Penicillium and Aspergillus genii, for example, are used to produce cheese and citric acid.

However, arguably the most famous edible ascomycete is the truffle. There are several species of truffle typically used as a flavoring in cooking. They are very strong, so you don't need much. That is probably for the best, since black truffles (the cheaper and more readily available species) sell for $95 per ounce-that's $1520 per pound! Now the next time you see truffle fries on a menu, you'll know why they're so much more than regular fries.

Even the more common truffles are quite expensive.
Black truffle

Fungi in Medicine

You might have noticed that Penicillium sounds familiar. If so, it's because a very famous antibiotic known as penicillin is produced from members of this genus. Flavacin, another antibiotic, is also produced from ascomycetes.

Another life-saving drug is ergot, which is produced by Claviceps purpurea. Ergot can reduce bleeding by making vessels narrow. It's used to stop bleeding during menopause, menstrual cycles, miscarriages, and in childbirth to expel the placenta by contracting the muscles of the uterus.

Negative Impacts

You can clearly see the positive economic impacts of ascomycetes. However, there are negative impacts from this group as well, mostly in the form of diseases.

Interestingly, one negative impact comes from Claviceps purpurea. Though it can be used to produce life-saving medicine, ergot can also cause significant problems in wheat and grass crops. It causes the grass to produce fungal spores instead of grains, which makes the crop inedible.

Not only that, but if consumed in high enough amounts it can cause a disease in humans that restricts blood flow, ultimately leading to loss of limbs.

Ergot can ruin wheat crops and cause serious illness.
Ergot grass

Another negative is a powdery mildew caused by members of the Erysiphaceae family. Erysiphaceae species cover plants in a white coating that makes them inedible. These ascomycetes also cause plants to have a lower production of fruits or vegetables.

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