Fungi are a kingdom of eukaryotic (their cells have nuclei) organisms. Other examples of biological kingdoms include Plantae, the plants, and Animalia, the animals. Common fungi include mushrooms, yeasts, and molds. Fungi are essential in decomposing dead organic matter in the soil, and without them, biological refuse would take much longer to degrade, making it difficult for the next generation of organisms to utilize the essential elements therein. Although fungi may look like plants, they are in fact more closely related to animals. The study of mushrooms is known as mycology.
The key characteristic of fungi which sets them apart from other organisms are their chitinous cell walls. This durable material, chitin, also makes up the shells of many insects. Fungi tend to grow in filamentous structures known as mycelium, and reproduce either sexually or asexually via spores. In mushrooms, the spores are visible as black dust underneath the cap.
Fungi have a long history of being utilized by humans. Yeasts are used to give bread the puffy consistency with which we are familiar. Many mushrooms are integrated into dishes; the Portobello mushroom is one of the more popular species. Some fungal species are critical to fermentation, the process underlying the production of alcoholic beverages. Cheeses possess their characteristic odd smell, and sometimes, color, due to carefully introduced fungi. Psilocybin mushrooms have long been consumed for their hallucinogenic properties. Some species of mushrooms with creative names such as “destroying angel” and “death cap” are very poisonous, however, and can cause death within hours of consumption.
In an effort to cut down on the use of chemically polluting pesticides, some agricultural scientists have developed fungi for use as biopesticides – beneficial fungi which produce alkaloids toxic to a wide range of insects and other pests.
Fungi can be found in every environment on Earth, even the dry valleys of Antarctica, where small microbial populations exist during the summer. Fungi exist in pretty much every square meter of the Earth’s surface that is not permanently frozen or thoroughly sterilized. The only way to restrict fungal growth is by using a refrigerator or freezer.