When we hear the word "fungi", - it's not surprising to think of unpleasant images like wood rot, spoiled food, and even athlete's foot! Fungi might be "strange", but they are unique organisms vital to the planet's development.
Though often associated with plants, they are closer to animals in terms of behavior. They are their own kingdom - not part of the animal or plant kingdom. Scientists estimate that there are between six to eight million species of fungi, with only about 1% identified. Fungi are found everywhere, from the Arctic to the tropics, the highest mountains, to deep within the Earth.
The word "fungi" means "to rot" in Latin because many species of fungi are decomposers, breaking down all things organic: plants, animals, even rocks, soil, and sand. Though they don't move, have no legs, etc., they are motivated by hunger and are constantly looking for food. Fungi played a significant role in the forming of terrestrial life - basically due to their insatiable appetite. A billion years ago, the ice age was ending, and Earth was barren and empty with all life in the water. When the first microbes “stepped foot” on land, some of them were fungi that survived on land by mining minerals from rocks - eating the rocks and turning them into soil.
As time went on, fungi made alliances with other organisms, constantly spreading and slowly adding life to the planet. Fungi also released oxygen and took part in changing the planet's atmosphere due to symbiotic relationships with liverworts - the world's oldest plants. To bring home the resiliency of fungi, they have survived many planet-altering events such as ice ages, asteroid collisions, and more.
In the modern world, fungi make up ingredients for various life-saving medicines, including antibiotics, while other species speed up compost. Fungi can break down and recycle almost anything in nature, making them particularly useful in bioremediation, the process of using living organisms to break down environmental contaminants. Scientists are also using fungi to develop new ways of developing bio-based substitutes for plastics, paper, fabrics, and even medicines.
Of course, fungi can be hazardous and lethal. They can infect cold-blooded animals such as reptiles to devastating effects. Humans have been lucky so far since only a few fungi species can survive our body temperature of 37º.
However, with global warming and impending climate change, the world is drier and warmer. Soil - home of many fungi - dries up faster transforming into dust that people can inhale, increasing the chances of fungus entering our bodies. It is imperative to delve deeper into our relationships with fungi now more than ever. They're the ones that keep bringing life back to Earth after every major disaster, and yep, they can quickly kill us off too.
Fungi can be difficult to study as they are so diverse and can be hard to identify. However, scientists worldwide are working to understand these organisms better and find ways they can benefit people even more.