Fungal Nutrition and Cell Reproduction

Like virtually all animals, fungi are het-erotrophs (Greek: hetero = "other"; trophos = "feeding"); that is, they eat other organisms or leakage of organic materials from other organisms to survive, rather than making their own food. That is why we are accustomed to seeing them on, or associating them with, dead, dying, or sickly tissue.

Unlike animals, however, fungi do not eat but break down food on the outside of their bodies, by producing powerful enzymes and then absorbing the other organisms into their cells. They thrive, for example, on keratin, an animal protein found in hair and nails, and can decompose cellulose, a hard-to-digest compound that helps lend rigidity to the wood of trees. Their own cells are surrounded by walls of chitin, also found as the exterior hard coating of arthropods such as insects. Chitin is a nitrogen-rich long-chain polysaccharide compound that makes fungi physically tough and helps them to resist extremes of wet and dry, hot and cold. Inhabiting diverse ecosystems from the Arctic tundra to human feet, mouth, and intestines (Candida species are a normal partner on the human body, causing problems only when they overgrow), fungi are among the most tenacious organisms on earth.

Fungi grow by spores that germinate into thin growing tubes known as hyphae. These microscopic, translucent, rootlike structures are incompletely divided by walls called septa, although not in all species. The septa are somewhat like partial walls in a modern apartment, orchestrating but not completely containing the flow of intracellular structures such as mitochondria and, in sex, nuclei. Thus, unlike most cells of multicellular organisms, in fungi the cytoplasm, or area around the nucleus, can flow more or less freely from cell to cell. When the hyphae aggregate in sufficient numbers they become visible as a fungal mass, the body of the fungus, called mycelia. Mycelia, often seen as thready, whitish masses—fuzz—may be subterranean; attached to tree roots, many fungi develop more familiar reproductive parts such as mushrooms and the shelf fungi at the bottom of trees, the parts of their bodies that extend above ground.

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