Fungi are incredibly diverse organisms, ranging from single-celled structures to complex, multicellular life forms. These creatures can be microscopic or display large, fruiting bodies with extensive underground systems.
Scientists have only identified around 150,000 of an estimated 2.2–3.8 million fungal species to date. As these organisms play critical roles in ecosystem functioning, it’s essential to understand their diversity.
How do researchers make sense of the world of mushrooms and assign newly discovered samples to the correct families? Let’s take a look at taxonomy and how the discipline helps conserve these fantastic fungi.
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What is Fungal Taxonomy?
Fungal taxonomy involves describing, classifying, and naming mushrooms. Experts provide novel fungi specimens with unique titles and labels that enable us to communicate about them.
In short, fungal taxonomy is the science of mushroom discovery. Organizing these species into similar categories builds the databases required for monitoring them and conducting further investigations.
Fungi were previously grouped based on their physiology, shape, and color. Modern taxonomists classify these organisms according to how they sexually reproduce, with the morphology of the spore-producing organs being the most useful.
The Main Classifications of Fungi
The fungi kingdom has five main groups or phyla. It’s important to note that thanks to recent advances in microbiology, new genetic analyses are emerging.
This evidence shows different relationships between the various categories, meaning that these classifications could change in the future.
The fungi in this phylum are called chytrids and are simple, mostly unicellular organisms. They produce mobile spores that can swim using a single flagellum, a slender, threadlike structure.
Chytrids are microscopic and found in freshwater or wet soils. Some species act as parasites to insects, plants, and amphibians, while others decompose materials like chitin, keratin, and pollen.
Zygomycota: Conjugated Fungi
Zygomycetes are a small group of fungi belonging to the Zygomycota phylum. This class includes the mold that thrives on the surfaces of bread, fruits, and vegetables.
Most species are saprobes, living off decaying organic material, while others are parasites of insects.
These fungi reproduce by creating sporangiospores that germinate and produce a new mycelium when landing on a suitable substrate.
The organisms begin sexual reproduction when conditions become unfavorable. When hyphae from opposing Zygomycetes meet, they produce and fuse gametangia, which are spore-producing organs.
The developing zygospores have thick coats that allow them to remain dormant until their environment becomes favorable for germination. After sprouting, the spores split and develop into new organisms. This form of sexual fungal reproduction is called conjugation.
Ascomycota: Sac Fungi
Most of the fungi on earth belong to the Ascomycota class, characterized by sac-like structures called asci that contain spores. This phylum includes lichens, molds, certain mushrooms, and the organisms used to make beer, bread, cheese, wine, and medicines.
When ascomycetes reproduce sexually, thousands of asci fill a fruiting body called the ascocarp once two gametes combine. The cells inside this organ divide into new spores before being released to germinate and start new mycelia.
Basidiomycota: Club Fungi
Basidiomycota are recognized under the microscope by their club-shaped reproductive organs called basidia. We often find these bodies within the common mushrooms observed in grassy fields after rain or on grocery store shelves.
They are sometimes called “gill fungi” because of the gill-like structures under their caps.
Basidiomycetes carry cells known as basidiospores, which germinate into a primary mycelium. Different mating strains combine to form a secondary mycelium, which generates a fruiting body, or basidiocarp. This organ protrudes from the ground as a mushroom.
Glomeromycota: The Novel Phylum
This newly established phylum comprises approximately 230 fungi species living near tree roots.
All members of this group form a symbiotic relationship where the plants supply the fungus with carbon and energy. In turn, the Glomeromycetes dissolve essential nutrients in the soil to feed the tree roots.
These fungi produce spores but don’t appear to have any sexual processes. They also can’t survive without the presence of plants.
Other Fungi Classes
Fungi unrelated to those in the five major phyla belong to a sixth, informal group called Deuteromycota.
Deuteromycota: Imperfect Fungi
Taxonomists haven’t described these organisms as well as other groups and are only familiar with their vegetative and asexual phases. Scientists consider this phylum “artificial” because its classifications include morphology rather than a common background.
As molecular analysis develops, we move members into the Ascomycota or Basidiomycota categories.
Most Deuteromycota live on land and form visible mycelia with a fuzzy appearance, commonly called mold.
These imperfect fungi have a significant impact on human life. The food industry relies on them for ripening blue cheese and developing the white Camembert crust.
Many of these organisms also cause severe diseases in people and plants as parasites or by producing toxic compounds.
Closing the Fungi Knowledge Gap
While we significantly understand many major plant and animal kingdoms, fungal diversity lags far behind. Researchers are working hard to close this gap and classify as many of these organisms as possible.
A complete knowledge of fungi may enhance our future capacity to manage and use the potential of these creatures. This database could drive the discovery of new materials and sustainable processes.
Visit our store to purchase spore syringes and begin exploring magical mushrooms. Who knows where fungal taxonomy could take us next?
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