Without fungi, our world would be very, very different.
There’s a strong argument to be made that it wouldn’t exist at all—at least not in a way that we humans would like very much. Fungi are the “Great Decomposers” of the Earth. If they suddenly disappeared, a significant portion of dead plant and animal matter would appear to simply refuse to decay. This is especially so for fallen trees, since they contain a material called lignin in their support tissues. Only fungi are capable of “eating” away this material.
Fungi have an important relationship with the ecosystem. Their predilection for decomposition might be better described as being the world’s most skilled recyclers. Without fungi, humans would have an exceedingly difficult time growing any crops for food, because fungi decompose (or recycle) inanimate matter and convert it into important nutrients. Animals would be affected too, since some fungi even help herbivores like sheep to digest grass.
Needless to say, it’s a very good thing indeed that fungi exist!
Fungi are so good at decomposition that leading mycologists are continually improving a process wherein mycelial networks (the vegetative, spiderweb-like part of fungi) act as a means of “recycling” toxic waste. This is called mycoremediation. Read more about this absolutely fascinating technology in our article Understanding Mycoremediation: Can Mycelium Really Save the World?
In fact, many, many different types of fungi exist. So many that some scientists believe that less than 10% of all fungi on Earth have been properly described and scientifically categorized.
There are mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and lichens, just to name a few. If you’re interested in studying mushroom spores under the microscope as part of the amateur microscopy hobby, all these different types of fungi can be a bit overwhelming!
The goal of today’s article is to give you a very brief understanding of some of these different fungi—just enough to get you started. If you’re interested in learning more about mycology and amateur microscopy, a great place to start is simply by browsing The Psilocybe Philosophy, the resident Quality Spores blog. And, if you really want to go deep, check out our article The Top 5 Fungi Books Every Amateur Mycologist Needs to Have On Their Shelf.
For now, let’s dive in with a very common question: just what in the heck is the difference between a toadstool and a mushroom?
What’s a Toadstool?
This one is a bit of a trick question! The term toadstool is actually just another word for mushroom. There is no distinct group of fungi called toadstools; it’s a casual, unscientific word. Sometimes people use the term to describe inedible mushrooms (whereas edible mushrooms would be just “mushrooms”), and in some parts of Europe, people will call colorful mushrooms that grow in fields toadstools. It’s really all just a matter of semantics.
The term toadstool makes sense when you think about it: a mushroom looks a bit like a stool chair—the perfect size for a toad to take a seat on. The term probably originated sometime in the late 14th century, because during this time toads were thought to be commonly poisonous. (As it turns out, the prevalence of fatally poisonous toads, like fungi, has been traditionally overstated.)
Knowing all that, the next logical question is then, of course, what’s a mushroom? Aren’t all fungi simply mushrooms? No! All mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms. This is a topic we’ve discussed at some length already, so rather than repeat ourselves, we’ll direct you to our detailed article Mushroom Spores & Microscopy Research where this concept and more are discussed.
Is a Mold a Mushroom?
No, mold isn’t a mushroom. A mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungus: that visible part we see above ground. Molds are organisms with a growth pattern that is sometimes described as “woolly” or “fuzzy”. If you’ve ever left an orange or other fruit out for an extended period, you’ve probably noticed a mold colony start to crop up.
Molds are eukaryotic microorganisms which grow in the form of hyphae. The hyphae of a mold is multicellular—in contrast to the single-celled yeast organisms discussed next. There are thousands of different kinds of molds, but they all need moisture and organic matter to survive. Since fungi don’t get their energy from the sun through photosynthesis like plants do, molds don’t require any light to grow.
Is Yeast a Fungus?
Yes, yeast is a fungus. Specifically, yeasts are single-celled (or unicellular) eukaryotic microorganisms in the kingdom fungi. While molds grow hyphae to collect nutrients, yeasts do not. Instead, yeasts use a metabolic process which generally results in a process you’ve probably heard of: fermentation. This is why yeast is necessary for making alcohol or bread. The specifics of the precise metabolic process undertaken is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say that yeasts and similar chemoorganotrophs derive their energy from oxidation of organic compounds.
What is a Lichen?
Lichen are very interesting! Lichen aren’t fungus—except they sort of are.
Here’s how it works: the term lichen, or, more accurately, a lichenized fungus, describes what biologists call a composite organism: two organisms that function as a single unit. Lichens are a fungus that has developed a symbiotic relationship with a plant organism, typically called an alga (the same sort of thing as algae, the stuff you see floating in a pond).
As we’ve learned, fungi don’t absorb nutrients from photosynthesis. What allows plants to get their “food” from the sun is chlorophyll, a green pigment. As a plant, alga can conduct photosynthesis. When these two organisms combine to become a lichen, the fungi is able to gain nutrients from the alga, and the alga gains the protection of the fungi.
Learn More About The Life Cycle of Fungi By Studying Mushroom Spores
Here at Quality Spores, we carry a diverse array of microscopy equipment and viable, authentic mushroom spore syringes, with a special focus on exotic, “magic” mushroom spores which many members of the amateur microscopy community find particularly fascinating to study.