Vital Role of Fungi and Mushrooms in Human Health
There are many kinds of organisms and systems in nature that humans take for granted, and yet without them, our lives would be in jeopardy. Fungi is one of them. Mushrooms and fungi are beneficial to humankind in many ways.
Fun Fungi Facts
- Fungi spend most of their lifecycle hidden and underground.
- Some of the most powerful, fastest, largest, and deadliest living organisms on the planet are fungi.
- Mushrooms are the most common and identifiable kind of fungi.
- Mushrooms outnumber plants ten to one.
- Every fungus has its unique spore print.
- Fungi are crucial to life on earth; humans and other life forms would not exist without them.
- Humans and fungi evolutionary development is linked, creating a powerful connection.
- Fungi are neither plant nor animal.
- Beatrix Potter, author of the famous children's book Peter Rabbit, was a leading mushroom biologist and along with biologist Arthur Buehler discovered how fungi reproduce.
Not a Plant and Not an Animal
As mentioned, mushrooms are not plants, and they are not an animal. They are a distinct and different organism having taken a different evolutionary path from plants and animals over 1.5 billion years ago. Although, their evolutionary path followed the same as animals for millions of years making their connection to animals profound in many ways.
Most fungi begin life in the dark. The mushroom fruit that emerges above ground is the end of the life cycle of a mushroom. When you eat mushrooms, this is the part consumed. In the underground portion of fungi, lives an amazing root system called mycelium. Mycelium, the largest part of the fungi, consists of a network of feeding-like tubes which acts as a digestive system. It can spread across many miles.
For example, the mycelium of the honey fungus spreads across 2384 acres of forest in Oregon, making it the world's largest organism. Mycelium consumes and breaks down organic matter across the world thereby making the earth habitable for humans and other animals.
The fastest organism in the world is not a cheetah, but the Pilobolus crystallinus. Also known as hat thrower, this species of fungi shoots spore capsules at forty miles per hour in two-millionth of a second. The speed and the number of spores shot out demonstrates how important reproduction and survival is to fungi. Reproduction is the fruit's primary purpose.
Fungi Symbiotic Relationship with Plants
In most cases, fungi form a symbiotic relationship with plants. They attach to plant roots either by penetrating them or covering the roots like a glove thereby creating a nutrient exchange. Fungi feed on plant sugars it needs to grow and in return gives plants water and minerals like nitrogen and phosphorus taken from the soil. The relationship is fundamental to all forms of life on the planet, without it plants couldn't thrive and neither could humans.
The parasitic and pathogenic process of some fungi decompose organisms in the environment and returns nutrients to the soil creating a circle of life.
Vital Role of Fungi and Human Health
Besides, keeping the ecological balance of the earth in check for human life to exist, fungi are crucial to health in other ways. Here are a few ways fungi work to improve health:
- Without the accidental discovery of fungi and their ability to destroy bacteria by British scientist Alexander Flemming, antibiotics would not have been discovered.
- Scientists believe healthy bacteria and fungi work together in the body to prevent illnesses. And when there is a disruption in their natural balance, it can lead to diseases such as obesity and inflammatory bowel disease, cystic fibrosis, dermatitis, and others. Researchers believe that the overuse of antifungal medicines like antibiotics is leading to fungi resistant.
- Cordycepin is a chemical found only in the cordyceps mushrooms. Lab studies show they stop the production of the poly-a-tail. Poly-a- tail are tiny structures at the end of all cancer cells responsible for their growth and multiplication. While it doesn't kill the cells, cordycepin stops them from growing which could lead to a new class of drugs not just for cancer but also for other inflammatory diseases.
Fungi's effect on human health and their connection to humans is profound. "At every stage of their life, fungi reveal just how much like us they are. It's a powerful connection that explains why we work so well together. And why we are all perhaps much more mushroom than we ever imagined."[i]
BBC. Magic of Mushrooms. Video https://www.netflix.com/title/80212708
Harb, Jinan. We all know a healthy gut needs good bacteria, but does it also depend on good FUNGI? From treating infections to losing weight, experts reveal the many unlikely benefits (March 28, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-4354398/What-health-benefits-good-FUNGI.html
Merz, Rachel, Professor. Evaluating the explosive spore discharge mechanism of Pilobolus Crystallinus using mechanical measurements and mathematical modeling (May 9, 2005). Retrieved from https://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/06/tuthill/Academics/Things/Pilobolus%20Paper.pdf
Walle, Gavin Van De. 6 Benefits of Cordyceps, All Backed by Science (May 9, 2018). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/cordyceps-benefits#section1
[i] BBC. Magic of Mushrooms. Video. Web.
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