Fungi: Ecological Importance and Impact on Humans


Fungi play vital roles in the biosphere. They are essential to the recycling of nutrients in all terrestrial habitats because they are the dominant decomposers of the complex components of plant debris, such as cellulose and lignin. As opportunistic heterotrophs, they have evolved hyphae to penetrate solid substrates, and spores for longā€range dispersal. They cause many diseases of plants and animals, but they also have established mutualistic symbioses with a wide range of organisms: cyanobacteria and green algae (in lichens), bryophytes, pteridophytes, gymnosperms and angiosperms (in mycorrhizae), and coleopteran, dipteran, homopteran, hymenopteran and isopteran insects. As parasites or pathogens they are well equipped to penetrate host organisms and to liberate spores that will effectively transmit them from one host to the next, and many species produce toxic compounds (mycotoxins). Some fungi affect human health in various ways.

Key concepts:

  • Many fungi are opportunistic heterotrophs, disposers of, or recyclers of, organic substrates, especially those of plant origin.

  • Parasitic fungi attack almost all known taxa of plants and animals.

  • Fungi have established mutualistic symbioses with cyanobacteria and chlorophycota (green algae) to form lichens.

  • Fungi often form symbiotic associations with the roots of plants (bryophytes, pteridophytes, gymnosperms and angiosperms) in mycorrhizae.

  • Some fungi live as symbionts with coleoptera, diptera, homoptera and hymenoptera.

  • Some fungi cause diseases (mycoses) in humans or excrete toxic compounds (mycotoxins).

  • Fungal spores can cause severe allergies in humans.

Keywords: heterotrophs; saprobes; mutualistic symbionts; lichens; green algae; cyanobacteria; mycorrhizas; mycoses; mycotoxins; mushroom poisoning; respiratory allergies

Further Reading

Batra LR (ed.) (1979) Insect–Fungus Symbiosis. Montclair, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun.

de Hoog GS, Guarro J, Gené J and Figueras MJ (eds) (2000) Atlas of Clinical Fungi, 2nd edn. Utrecht: Centraalbureau voor Schimmelcultures.

Kendrick B (1991) Fungal symbioses and evolutionary innovations. In Margulis L and Fester L (eds) Symbiosis as a Source of Evolutionary Innovation, pp. 249–261. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Krogh P (ed.) (1988) Mycotoxins in Food. New York: Academic Press.

Larone DH (2011) Medically Important Fungi: A Guide to Identification, 5th edn. Washington, DC: ASM Press.

Robson GD, van West P and Gadd G (eds) (2007) Exploitation of Fungi. British Mycological Symposia (No. 26). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Samson RA, van Reenen‐Hoekstra ES et al. (1988) Introduction to Food‐Borne Fungi, 3rd edn. Baarn: Centraalbureau voor Schimmelcultures.

Schmidt O (2006) Wood and Tree Fungi. Biology, Damage, Protection, and Use. Berlin: Springer.

Smith SE and Read DJ (1997) Mycorrhizal Symbiosis, 2nd edn. London: Academic Press.

Varma A and Kharkwal AC (eds) (2009) Symbiotic Fungi. Berlin: Springer.

Webster J and Weber R (2007) Introduction to Fungi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Kendrick, Bryce(Oct 2011) Fungi: Ecological Importance and Impact on Humans. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000369.pub2]