The Importance of Being Fungi

  Akshat Jain |     August 17, 2021
Image credits: Midhun Vijayan
Image credits: Midhun Vijayan

When we think about biodiversity, we usually think only of animals, birds, insects and plants. We forget that fungi are also biodiversity. According to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK, fungi are ‘distinctive organisms that digest their food externally by secreting enzymes into the environment and absorbing organic matter back into their cells.’ They are one of three macroscopic kingdoms of life, together with animals (fauna) and plants (flora), and one of six total kingdoms of life.

Mycologists (people who study fungi) estimate that there are somewhere between 2.2–3.8 million species of fungi on Earth, though only 8 per cent of these are currently scientifically documented. Each year up to 2,000 new species are discovered globally. In 1998, scientists determined that the largest organism on Earth, at least by area covered, was a fungus in Oregon’s Blue Mountains whose mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus) spanned over 2,000 acres underground.

There would be no life on Earth without fungi. Yeasts, molds and mushrooms are critical to decomposition, forest regeneration, mammalian digestion, carbon sequestration, the global nutrient cycle, antibiotic medication, and the bread, beer and chocolate we consume. In fact, trees would not be able to live on land at all without fungi.

As many as 90 percent of the common plants we see on land have a beneficial relationship with fungi. Fungi help plants take in additional water, minerals, and nutrients, and in return the they get a portion of the sugar plants generate from photosynthesis.

Because fungi are so closely associated with plants and animals, they face a similar set of threats to their existence from: deforestation, climate change, and pollution. They are also subject to threats from the widespread use of fungicides, overharvesting and nitrogen enrichment.

In 2013, the Fungal Red List was launched as a subsection of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The initiative was launched when just three fungi—two lichens and the white ferula—were listed as endangered, and it sought to highlight the importance of conserving fungi.

Fungi can play a critical role in nature-based solutions to climate change and wildlife extinction. They help regulate atmospheric carbon dioxide. As decomposers, they can help clean polluted soils. And they can provide a great food alternative to animal foods—which are a driving force behind deforestation and climate change, as the majority of the world’s tropical forests are cleared for cattle ranching and soybean farming to feed the cattle and other livestock.

Chile is the first and only government in the world that includes fungi in environmental legislation. A few countries like Bulgaria and 36 countries of Europe (European Council of Fungal Conservation) have prepared their Red List of Fungi. It is imperative for mycologists in India to develop a Red List of Fungi for the country so that the government and policy makers may become aware of their conservation needs.

How can you pitch in? To be able to solve a problem, we first have to remember that it exists. This is why we should use ‘mycologically inclusive’ language. When talking about life on earth, or describing a certain place, we should not just say ‘flora and fauna’ as we are used to saying, we should instead say—flora, fauna, and funga. We should not only say animals and plants but ‘animals, plants and fungi’. This might not seem like much but every little effort to foster recognition of fungi is useful as it will make them culturally relevant and people will be keener to do something about them. For example, we have heard stories of tigers and lions and monkeys since our childhood. So, we feel a certain attachment towards them, due to which we regularly pressure our governments to take concrete steps to save their habitats. Similarly, if fungi become part of our life, conservation efforts will find a larger mass base and thus be more successful.

So, go ahead, and tell everyone you know about the wonders of fungi. Maybe even make some zany stories about them where they save the world or help people love each other.

About the Author

Senior Sub-Editor, Publications, Centre for Science and Environment

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