Wood Decay Fungi


Wood decay fungi are any species of fungi that utilise the structural components of wood as a source of nutrients. They comprise a very diverse group and have a worldwide distribution normally wherever trees are found. Wood decay fungi are vital to ecosystem functioning as they facilitate the decomposition of woody materials into soil. Wood decay fungi are also major contributors to damage to wood in service in both residential and industrial applications, leading to estimated $1B in losses annually. Wood decay fungi have also been exploited for use in industrial processes ranging from product development to waste breakdown. This article focuses on the taxonomic and physiological diversity of wood decay fungi and their importance both on economic and environmental scales.

Key Concepts

  • Wood decay fungi are a diverse group of microorganisms that are primarily involved in the breakdown of woody biomass.
  • These fungi are primary drivers of soil formation and nutrient cycling critical to ecosystem function.
  • Decay fungi also contribute to substantial damage to wood and wood‐based building materials and are a primary consideration in the use of preservative‐treated wood.
  • Decay of wood by fungi is typically characterised as either white, brown or soft rot with grey rot being a new and emerging distinction among decay fungi.
  • Collectively, these fungi possess a wide array of physiological mechanisms adapted to break down the structural components of wood.
  • Both enzymatic and nonenzymatic mechanisms of wood decay have been exploited as industrial processes to break down both man‐made and natural compounds.

Keywords: wood decay fungi; biodeterioration; nutrient cycling; ecosystem services; industrial processes

Figure 1. Diagram of the wood cell wall. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Figure 2. Generalised infection stages of wood decay fungi. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Figure 3. Photographic examples of four most common types of wood decay (a) discoloration by mild fungi, which does little to impact the structural components, (b) brown rotted pine depicting brown cubical cracking owing to the removal of cellulose and residual lignin remaining, (c) white rotted maple depicting white, stringy bleached residual cellulosic material owing to the removal of the lignin matrix and partial removal of cellulose and hemicellulose and (d) a section of soft rotted pine utility pole.
Figure 4. Fruiting body of Schizophyllum commune on decaying wood. S. commune has been determined to be a grey rot, possessing capabilities found in both traditional brown and white rot modes of decay. Courtesy of Bernard Spragg, Chiristchurch, NZ.


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Kirker, Grant T(Feb 2018) Wood Decay Fungi. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027655]