When you hear the word fungus, some less than positive images may come to mind: rotting food, embarrassing foot odour, and mould ruining your overly expensive loaf of bread. You may even go so far as to say that fungi are a villain the world could live without. However, with uses from food to environmental cleaning, this misunderstood organism may be the very hero our world needs.

Fungi are a taxonomic group under the kingdom Chromista. This organism differs from plants due to a lack of chlorophyll, leading to them having to supplement their nutrients from the outside world, as they cannot photosynthesize their own.

One of the most well-known uses of fungi is in the culinary world. Portobello mushrooms act as an umami staple for vegetarians and meat lovers alike. Additionally, truffles are hunted by pigs and cost hundreds of dollars to enjoy their delicate yet flavourful taste. Although mushrooms vary in nutrients many provide substantial amounts of minerals, protein, and dietary fibre, helping contribute to a balanced diet. And best of all, for all us chefs out there who tend to overcook their food, due to fungal cell walls being composed of chitin, a heat resistant polymer, it is incredibly hard to overcook these tender treats.

A truffle pig and owners hunting for truffles

Another often forgotten fungal leader in the culinary world is microfungus. This category includes moulds and yeast which are responsible for synthesizing the wine and cheese so many of us love. Yeast is responsible for breaking down sugars and secreting ethanol as a by-product and in expensive cheeses (such as blue cheese), mould is purposefully introduced through a process called needling, in which mould is actually encouraged to grow in the cheese by puncturing holes.

Blue cheese, shown with fungi blue needlings

Beyond the kitchen, fungi are an integral component in the field of medicine. If you are a history buff you may know that fungi have been ingrained in the world of antibiotics since its existence. Use of fungi in medicine dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who apparently applied mould to infections.

However, it wasn’t till the accidental growth colony of penicillin that the value of these organisms became known in the western world, being the first, and still commonly used, antibiotic. Today moulds, spores, and mushrooms are still used in treatments such as mycophenolate, which prevents tissue rejection, and the immunosuppressant cyclosporin A (which is a natural metabolite in mushrooms, helping to treat autoimmune disorders).

Beyond protecting our bodies, fungi also serve yet another purpose of protecting our foods, acting as natural insecticides. In many smaller farming industries that want to keep their food organic but also allow for crops to grow fully, fungi are used as biological pest controls. This mechanism, which often results in insect infection or death, causes the bugs co-evolution to be able to detect the fungi and avoid them and the crops they protect.

There are also many ways that fungi can help save our world. In the past mushrooms have been used to clean up after oil spills. With the ability to break down organic compounds which also includes polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PCB, and oils – the mushrooms are able to process the structures being reportedly used in San Francisco.

But if we think about the world outside our human centered view, the greatest gift of fungi is what it gives back to the environment. Mycorrhizal fungi helps to bring nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into the surrounding soil, while removing carbon. They also act as decomposers, breaking down cellulose using digestive enzymes. When mushrooms rot, even in their death they provides life; spores go deep into the soil and allow a sponginess that prevents erosion of the soil.

So in the future, when you see a fungus at the supermarket, on the street or in your own backyard, remember that these fungi may be the silent saviours our world needs.

Written by Sloane Kowal

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.