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Do fungi deserve more respect?

Notes from Planet Earth

As far as we know, fungi have been around at least as long as plants have and both apparently originated as marine organisms perhaps as much as a billion years ago.

Mankind has utilized these interesting organisms for millennia in the making of bread, wines, beers and cheeses. More recently some fungi have proved useful as a source of colorful natural dyes. The role of fungi in disease has been less appreciated by the general public compared to our frequent reminders of the devastation and death wrought by bacteria (the plague, for example) and viruses (influenza and small pox, for instance).

However, we have no vaccines for fungal diseases and fungal diseases of humans and other animals (except for mild skin disorders) are very difficult, if not impossible, to treat.

Recently we’ve learned that amphibians (frogs, toads, and salamanders) in many parts of the world have been devastated to the point of local extinction by fungal epidemics. In our region, some species of bats have suffered a similar fate as a result of a fungus (white nose syndrome) which attacks the animals during hibernation when the animals’ body temperature is low.

Although plant pathologists have long been aware of fungal diseases of crops, trees and decorative plants these diseases have recently become an even greater threat to the world’s crops.

A recent article in Science reports that currently more than 125 million tons of rice, wheat, maize, potatoes, and soybeans are destroyed each year by fungi. This degree of infestation is unfortunately encouraged by modern agricultural practices, increased global travel and trade, and perhaps by global warming as well.

But as with most other groups of organisms, we humans would lose much of what is dear to us were it not for fungi. These versatile organisms not only are valued for their role in the production of the foods and drinks mentioned above but many species are highly valued as food themselves and others for the antibiotics they produce.

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