Fungal Ecology


Fungal ecology encompasses the relationships among fungi, the environment and other organisms. Fungi are essential partners of primary producers and the main decomposers of plant biomass. They contribute to soil, water and atmospheric biogeochemical cycles. By accessing and mobilising nutrients from rocks and soil, fungi contribute to the establishment of ecosystems. In addition to a key function in decomposition, fungi are intimate associates of plants, animals, other fungi, bacteria and viruses in diverse mutualistic and antagonistic roles across environments. Fungi are most diverse in undisturbed forests, but are also residents of environments with extremes of cold and desiccation, and are found in aquatic and marine ecosystems. Fungi employ various sexual and asexual strategies for dispersal and inhabit both mild and extreme habitats. Agricultural and industrial pollution impacts the diversity of fungi, which in turn are indicators of ecosystem health.

Key Concepts

  • The fungal lifestyle is adapted to diverse interactions with other organisms.
  • Fungal symbioses with plants underpin terrestrial ecosystems.
  • Fungi are the main recyclers of plant biomass, including wood.
  • Fungal communities are most readily studied with molecular techniques.
  • Fungi interact with other organisms with secondary metabolites.
  • Fungi provide structure to soils and biological crusts.
  • Fungi have been found in all of earth's ecosystems.

Keywords: ecosystems; nutrient cycles; decomposition; symbiosis; phytobiome

Figure 1. (a) Cryptothecia rubrocincta, the Christmas lichen, is a composite organism of a fungus (Arthoniales) and an alga Trentepohlia (Trentepohliales). The red banding is due to the secondary metabolite pigment chiodectonic acid, which likely plays a role in UV protection. (b) Fruiting body of Pholiota squarrosa (Agaricales), a wood‐decay fungus and weak‐tree pathogen. It is a presumed white rot fungus, degrading both lignin and cellulose components of wood. (c) The ‘jelly’ fruiting bodies of Dacryopinax spathularia (Dacrymycetales), a brown rot fungus on a copper‐treated wood deck resistant to many other wood‐decay fungi. (d) Amanita muscaria (Agaricales) is a mycorrhizal mutualist of pines that is a ‘magic mushroom’, producing the secondary metabolite muscimol, which can intoxicate humans (ritually and recreationally), flies and possibly the reindeer that seek them out as food. (e) Mycoparasitism of Armillaria mushrooms (Agaricales) by the ‘abortive entoloma’, Entoloma abortivum (Agaricales). The grey mushrooms are the fruiting body of the parasitic Entoloma, and the cauliflower‐shaped bodies are the extensively parasitised Armillaria mushrooms.


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Further Reading

Dighton J and White JF (eds) (2017) The Fungal Community: Its Organization and Role in the Ecosystem. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Heitman J, Howlett B, Crous PW, et al. (eds) (2017) The Fungal Kingdom. Washington DC: American Society for Microbiology.

Kibbler CC, Barton R, Gow NAR, et al. (eds) (2018) Oxford Textbook of Medical Mycology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Kubicek CP and Druzhinina IS (eds) (2007) The Mycota: Environmental and Microbial Relationships, vol. 4. Berlin/Heidelberg, Germany: Springer Science & Business Media.

Lovett B and Leger RS (eds) (2018) Genetics and Molecular Biology of Entomopathogenic Fungi, vol. 94. Cambridge, USA: Academic Press.

Martin F (ed) (2014) The Ecological Genomics of Fungi. Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Pitt JI and Hocking AD (2009) Fungi and Food Spoilage, 3rd edn. New York: Springer.

Roy HE, Vega FE, Chandler D, et al. (eds) (2010) The Ecology of Fungal Entomopathogens. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Vega FE and Blackwell M (eds) (2005) Insect‐fungal Associations: Ecology and Evolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Watkinson SC, Boddy L and Money N (2015) The Fungi, 3rd edn. London: Academic Press.

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Slot, Jason C(Aug 2018) Fungal Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000356.pub2]