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Fungus, plural fungi, any of about 99,000 known species of organisms of the kingdom Fungi, which includes the yeasts, rusts, smuts, mildews, molds, and mushrooms. There are also many funguslike organisms, including slime molds and oomycetes (water molds), that do not belong to kingdom Fungi but are often called fungi. Many of these funguslike organisms are included in the kingdom Chromista. Fungi are among the most widely distributed organisms on Earth and are of great environmental and medical importance. Many fungi are free-living in soil or water; others form parasitic or symbiotic relationships with plants or animals.

Fungi are everywhere in very large numbers — in the soil and the air, in lakes, rivers, and seas, on and within plants and animals, in food and clothing, and in the human body. Together with bacteria, fungi are responsible for breaking down organic matter and releasing carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus into the soil and the atmosphere. Fungi are essential to many household and industrial processes, notably the making of bread, wine, beer, and certain cheeses. Fungi are also used as food; for example, some mushrooms, morels, and truffles are epicurean delicacies, and mycoproteins (fungal proteins), derived from the mycelia of certain species of fungi, are used to make foods that are high in protein.


Fungi are eukaryotic organisms; i.e., their cells contain membrane-bound organelles and clearly defined nuclei. Historically, fungi were included in the plant kingdom; however, because fungi lack chlorophyll and are distinguished by unique structural and physiological features (i.e., components of the cell wall and cell membrane), they have been separated from plants. In addition, fungi are clearly distinguished from all other living organisms, including animals, by their principal modes of vegetative growth and nutrient intake. Fungi grow from the tips of filaments (hyphae) that make up the bodies of the organisms (mycelia), and they digest organic matter externally before absorbing it into their mycelia.

While mushrooms and toadstools (poisonous mushrooms) are by no means the most numerous or economically significant fungi, they are the most easily recognized. The Latin word for mushroom, fungus (plural fungi), has come to stand for the whole group. Similarly, the study of fungi is known as mycology — a broad application of the Greek word for mushroom, mykēs. Fungi other than mushrooms are sometimes collectively called molds, although this term is better restricted to fungi of the sort represented by bread mold. (For information about slime molds, which exhibit features of both the animal and the fungal worlds, see protist.)

Humans have been indirectly aware of fungi since the first loaf of leavened bread was baked and the first tub of grape must was turned into wine. Ancient peoples were familiar with the ravages of fungi in agriculture but attributed these diseases to the wrath of the gods. The Romans designated a particular deity, Robigus, as the god of rust and, in an effort to appease him, organized an annual festival, the Robigalia, in his honour. [Source:]

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Created: Tuesday, September 26, 2000; Last updated: Wednesday, September 14, 2016
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