Planet Earth

The Funky Fungi Freak Show

Come see the luminous looks of Gorgeous Glo. Marvel at the magnificent abilities of the Hat-Thrower. Meet the species that stinks to survive—but don't get too close.


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Behold the funky fungus! From the yeast that leavens our bread to the chanterelles that top our gourmet pizzas to the penicillin that kills our infections, fungi enrich our lives in countless ways. And University of Arkansas professor Steven L. Stephenson is determined to make you appreciate all the talents and quirks of these unassuming species. His book, The Kingdom Fungi: the Biology of Mushrooms, Molds and Lichens from Timber Press, explores the ecologically important role of fungi in nature.


The book's images of fungi and fungus-like organisms, many of which cannot be seen by the naked eye, may change your perception of nature's decomposers from disgusting pests to gorgeous works of natural art. The fungal rust that attacks your rose bushes, for instance, looks ugly in your garden. Yet, under a microscope, as in this image, its intricate structures are as geometrically intriguing as a Kandinsky or Miro painting. In this gallery, we present fungus species with stunning looks or freaky abilities.

Many fungi reproduce by creating fruiting bodies that produce spores, which are later dispersed. Though some fruiting bodies are microscopic, many are large, conspicuous and somewhat bizarre--like this specimen known by the common name of the starfish stinkhorn. It produces its spores in a nasty-smelling slime that attracts flies and other insects, which crawl around in the slime, picking up the spores on their feet and dispersing them.

Some fungi are actually carnivorous. Stephenson notes that nematode-trapping fungi use a variety of devices to capture their prey and extra nitrogen from them, from sticky secretions to adhesive nets. The latter is depicted in this image, where the fungus Arthrobotrys oligospora has netted a nematode (also known as a roundworm). "There have been some attempts at commercial applications of these guys," Stephenson says. "Plant nematodes are major agricultural pests, so if scientists can produce a fungus can help control them that's a good thing."

Chytrid fungi are ubiquitous and primitive. They can be found in deserts, as well as arctic and tropical regions. "They're very important in aquatic systems," Stephenson says. "If you toss debris into relatively clean water, you're going to attract chytrids. They're involved in the early stages of decomposition." Most chyrtids are harmless, he says, so scientists were surprised to discover that one, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, has been killing populations of frogs and other amphibians in recent years. The global die-off has gotten so dire that some scientists suggest it heralds the beginning of the world's sixth mass extinction event (pdf).

The fungus causes skin lesions that make it impossible for normal respiration to occur through the skin. In this image, the presence of spherical bodies in the skin cells of a northern leopard frog indicates that the frog is infected.

While some fungi rely on insects to disperse their spores and others rely on rain and wind, a few take matters into their own hands. Species of Pilobolus, known as hat thrower fungi, grow on horse, cow, and sheep dung. Once the spores have matured inside the black sporangium, osmotically active compounds cause an eruption, a shotgun-like blast that sends the spores up to six feet into the air. (See a timelapse video of Pilobolus developing here.)

"It's a remarkably sophisticated feat for a small, microscopic fungi," Stephenson says, adding: "I teach plant biology and ecology, and in those courses, we go out and get some dung and put it in culture dish and leave it out in a lab. Early the next morning, each individual fungus fires off its sporangium."

The fungus Penicillium chrysogenum is the source of penicillin, the antibiotic that was viewed a miracle drug after mass production began in the 1940s. But its relatives can have quite different uses: Other species like P. roqueforti and P. camemberti are used to make cheese. Although Alexander Fleming is credited with discovering penicillin in 1928, Stephenson says it's possible that it was used far earlier. In ancient Egypt, he notes, moldy bread was sometimes pressed into wounds to deter infections.

There are only 65 known species of bioluminescent fungi, most of which are found in the tropics. That includes this Mycena luncentipes, recently found in Brazil. These natural night-lights have been admired for centuries. The Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder both refer to them in ancient texts, and in 1652 the Swedish historian Olaus Magnus described Scandinavians using the light from "pieces of rotten oak bark" to find their way in and out of the forest late at night. More recently, World War I soldiers attached the fungi to their helmets to help them see in the trenches.

Without yeasts, unicellular fungi that reproduce by budding one cell on top of each other, we would not have leavened bread or the deliciousness known as beer. Yeasts work their magic on bread and beer by feasting on the sugar in flour or grains, and then releasing small amounts of carbon dioxide and ethanol alcohol. "Leavened bread was probably discovered by accident," Stephenson says. "When someone left some dough out and it came into contact with yeasts and began to rise."

The discovery of beer and wine probably came about in similar fashion, he says. Such libations may have contributed to the development of modern agriculture (if hunter-gathers decided to stay in one place to grow grains for Stone Age beer production), and important trade routes. "There's no question these things changed human history," he says.

Mushrooms are usually the most obvious fungi found in forests and meadows. Some, like morels and chanterelles, are prized for their gourmet qualities and are sought by foodies and chefs. Others, though, can cause problems if eaten. "Lots of mushroom have the potential to make you sick," Stephenson says. "Relatively few will kill you, but there are some that are deadly enough to knock your socks off permanently." The Amanita bisporigera, or "destroying angel," may look modest and nondescript with its silvery-white sheen, but it's one of the most poisonous mushrooms found in the United States.

Lichens, which are a mix of fungi and algae, can survive in extreme temperatures. Some, like this Buellila fridgida, can be found just 250 miles from the South Pole in Antarctica. Stephenson notes that in May 2005, Spanish researcher Leopold Sancho placed two species of lichens aboard a Russian rocket; once in orbit, the capsule holding the lichens opened and they were exposed to the extreme temperature fluctuations of space. The lichens, Stephenson writes, suffered no apparent problems from their cosmic adventure.

Lichens can also be used as an emergency food, Stephenson says. Pilots who have crashed high in the mountains have consumed them, and some Biblical scholars suggest that the Bible's "manna from heaven" could have been a form of lichen found in the deserts of the Middle East. "Lichens have a pretty earthy taste," Stephenson says. "They're pretty tough and hard to digest but they do provide some nutrition."

Certain fungi and plants form symbiotic relationships in which the fungus helps the plant absorb more water and soil nutrients, and the plant gives the fungus nourishment through photosynthesis--a process that fungi are unable to perform. Often the fungus attaches itself to the plant's root, as depicted in this photo.

"Some of these relationships are so absolutely important that if you took away the fungus, the plant would die," Stephenson says. "The group that relies on fungi the most are orchids. Most people know what orchids are, they recognize the beautiful flowers, but it never would occur to them that orchids could not exist without fungi."

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