Fungi are one of the most important organisms on the planet, but their role in preserving human life is simply incredible and has gone overlooked for centuries.
The list of reasons why fungi are crucial to the health and survival of the human race is equally as astounding as it is long. From medicinals to food sources, mushrooms have long enhanced our lives and hugely contributed to the changing and developing world around us. Here are a handful of examples to name a few:
- Medicine – Without mushrooms, our healthcare and pharmaceutical industries would be at a loss. One of the most major medicines that mushrooms have provided us is Penicillin, which is derived from a common fungus known as Penicillium. There are many other fungi that are known to have antibiotic qualities and have undoubtedly assisted medical research and ultimately revolutionised health care worldwide, including a certain caterpillar fungus which has been used as a tonic for hundreds of years; promoting a sense of vigour and well-being in its patients. Currently the Turkey Tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) is being used to aid the treatment of many cancers that originate in the cervix, liver and breast. Drug companies cannot patent mushrooms. Because of this, funds typically won't be allocated to study them unless they come from private institutions or government grants. However, this should be a positive as many studies only seek to isolate one part of a plant or mushroom to patent as a drug.
- Food – Rich in many vitamins and nutrients such as niacin, potassium, riboflavin and vitamin D, the nutritional value of many edible mushrooms is unquestionable. Yet without actually eating a mushroom, fungi are also used in the production of cheese, beer, wine and also bread to name a handful of foodstuffs. Low in calories, fat and gluten free and very low in sodium, mushrooms are a natural antioxidant and are vital as part of a healthy balanced diet.
- Plant-life – The existence of plants including all fruits and vegetables depends on many variables but perhaps the most important is the presence of fungi in the soil which they grow in. Mycorrhizal associations are made between plants and mushrooms which creates a mutually symbiotic relationship and enables most food chains to function properly. Without these relationships, most of the life that we know on our planet would cease to exist, and with humans at the top of many food chains, we would also face extinction as a race.
- Recycling – The greatest recyclers on the planet and the true digesters of the world's waste organic products, fungi are at the top of their game. Plant and animal matter is broken down by fungi (along with bacteria) and this energy is then transferred back to the soil in order to be used over and over again by every geological ecosystem that exists. Without these processes taking place, we would inevitably be lost under a world of semi-rotten organic matter and ultimately be subjected to swathes of diseases and nastiness.
So even with the few examples mentioned of how truly wonderful these organic organisms are, it is clear to see that without them, our days would be numbered and it's debatable that we would ever have existed on Earth in the first place.
The next time you see a mushroom, say thanks for all that it does.