The Fascinating World of Fungus

"There's fungus among us" may just be a clever saying, but it rings true. Fungus is all around us, in more places than you probably think. And as with many things, fungus is both good and bad. We need some kinds of fungi to aid in our survival and keep the habitats around us healthy, but some pose risks to our health and the health of other species.

A shaggy mane mushroom. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Chances are, mushrooms come to mind when you hear the term fungus, but beyond knowing a mushroom when you see one, fungi remain mysterious. Here's your chance to dive deeper into the world of fungus.


They're more like animals than plants


A fungus is not a plant or an animal, but fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants.


Not that long ago, all living things were classified as either plants or animals. In those days, fungi were considered plants, but there was a lot that made them different from other plants. For starters, they aren't capable of photosynthesis (using sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water) and cannot make their own food. This was among the reasons ecologist Robert Whittaker in 1969 proposed a new five-kingdom system of classifying living things. In this five-kingdom system, fungi are a kingdom of their own.


It's more than just mushrooms


When you think of fungus, mushrooms are probably the first thing to come to mind. Mushrooms are fungi, but just one of many kinds. The fungus kingdom is full of tens of thousands of species most people have never heard of, including aquatic species, species that live in the digestive tracts of plant-eating animals and parasitic species that are dependent on the other plants and animals for their survival.


Mildew is a fungus, and so are puffballs. In addition, lichens are a complex life form that exists as the result of a beneficial relationship between two organisms: a fungus and an alga.


Some mushrooms can glow in the dark


An eerie glow coming from a forest at night might stop you in your tracks, but that glow may just be a glow-in-the-dark mushroom. That's right. Some mushrooms are capable of bioluminesence — that is, they glow in the dark.


Bioluminescent mushrooms use light-emitting compounds called luciferins to glow, which in turn attracts insects. The bugs then spread the mushrooms' spores elsewhere in the forest, allowing the mushrooms to reproduce and the species to thrive.


Mushrooms aren't alone in their use of luciferin. It's the same compound lightning bugs use to light up the night and what makes some sea creatures, including some jellyfish and sea stars, glow in the dark.


More than 70 kinds of mushrooms glow in the dark, and there's even a special term — foxfire — for the light they emit. Glow-in-the-dark mushrooms sound pretty exotic, and some bioluminescent mushrooms do grow in far-away planes like Brazil and Vietnam. However, some of them can be found right here in Illinois. Among our local glow-in-the-dark mushrooms are bleeding fairy helmets and Jack-o'-lantern mushrooms.


They can be deadly


Many mushrooms and other fungi are edible, but consuming them can have dire consequences if you don't know exactly what you are eating. It's obviously safe to eat mushrooms you purchase from the grocery store, but foraging requires knowledge of mushrooms and what is safe and unsafe to consume.


Only 3 percent of mushrooms are poisonous, and symptoms from consuming toxic mushrooms can range from mild gastrointestinal discomfort to death. The most common toxic mushrooms are those from the Amanita genus, which are often called death caps. These mushrooms contain toxic compounds that can damage the liver.


These death caps don't look much different than what you might find at the supermarket, so use extreme caution when eating mushrooms foraged from the wild. And a friendly reminder: It is a violation of the Forest Preserve District's General Use Ordinance to take mushrooms — or any flora or fauna — from the preserves.


They heal us, too


Fungus can make us sick, both from eating toxic mushrooms and from fungal infections, but safe fungi can be good for us and are even used in many important medications.

Some of the most common and crucial medications — including the antibiotics penicillin and cephalosporin — are produced using fungi. Eating mushrooms is good for your health too, because they are packed with 15 essential vitamins and minerals like zinc, potassium and vitamin B6.

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