Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sunday Article: The Fungi

Sunday article by Mohan Pai
The Fungi

Wild, edible mushrooms, especially the short-lived variety that blooms with the onset of monsoons is a much relished variety on the western coast.
The Fungi are large group of parasites and decomposers that include mushrooms, molds and yeasts. Fungi were once grouped along with plants but are now thought to be more closely related to animals and are treated as a separate kingdom.
A fungus is any member of a large group of eukaryotic organisms that includes microorganisms such as yeasts and molds, as well as the more familiar mushrooms. The Fungi are classified as a kingdom that is separate from plants and animals. One major difference is that fungal cells have cell walls that contain chitin, unlike the cell walls of plants, which contain cellulose. The discipline of biology devoted to the study of fungi is known as mycology, which is often regarded as a branch of botany, even though genetic studies have shown that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants.Abundant worldwide, most fungi are inconspicuous because of the small size of their structures, and their cryptic lifestyles in soil, on dead matter, and as symbionts of plants, animals, or other fungi. They may become noticeable when fruiting, either as mushrooms or molds. Fungi perform an essential role in the decomposition of organic matter and have fundamental roles in nutrient cycling and exchange.
The fungi have long been used as a direct source of food, such as mushrooms and truffles, as a leavening agent for bread, and in fermentation of various food products, such as wine, beer, and soy sauce. Since the 1940s, fungi have been used for the production of antibiotics, and, more recently, various enzymes produced by fungi are used industrially and in detergents. Fungi are also used as biological agents to control weeds and pests. Many species produce bioactive compounds called mycotoxins, such as alkaloids and polyketides, that are toxic to animals including humans. Fungi can break down manufactured materials and buildings, and become significant pathogens of humans and other animals. Losses of crops due to fungal diseases (e.g. rice blast disease) or food spoilage can have a large impact on human food supplies and local economies.However, little is known of the true biodiversity of Kingdom Fungi, which has been estimated at around 1.5 million species, with about 5% of these having been formally classified.

Lichens are a symbiotic union between fungus and algae (or sometimes photosynthesizing bacteria). The algae provide nutrients while the fungus protects them from the elements. The result is a new organism distinctly different from its component species. Around 25,000 species of Lichens have been identified by scientists.
Medicinal mushrooms
The Kingdom Fungi includes some of the most important organisms, both in terms of their ecological and economic roles. By breaking down dead organic material, they continue the cycle of nutrients through ecosystems. In addition, most vascular plants could not grow without the symbiotic fungi, or mycorrhizae, that inhabit their roots and supply essential nutrients. Other fungi provide numerous drugs (such as penicillin and other antibiotics), foods like mushrooms, truffles and morels, and the bubbles in bread, champagne, and beer. Fungi also cause a number of plant and animal diseases: in humans, ringworm, athlete's foot, and several more serious diseases are caused by fungi. Because fungi are more chemically and genetically similar to animals than other organisms, this makes fungal diseases very difficult to treat.
Edible mushrooms
Edible mushrooms are used extensively in cooking, in many cuisines (notably Chinese, European, and Japanese). Though mushrooms are commonly thought to have little nutritional value, many species are high in fiber and provide vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, ascorbic acid. Mushrooms are also a source of some minerals, including selenium, potassium and phosphorusMost mushrooms that are sold in market have been commercially grown on mushroom farms. The most popular of these, Agaricus bisporus, is generally considered safe for most people to eat because it is grown in controlled, sterilized environments, though some individuals do not tolerate it well.

The button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus), one of the most widely cultivated mushrooms in the world.
At present 3 mushrooms are being cultivated in India. These are : the white mushroom (Agaricus bisporus), the paddy-straw mushroom (Volvariella vovvacea) and the oyster mushroom (Pleurotus sajor-caju). Of these, A. bisporus is the most popular and economically sound to grow and is extensively cultivated throughout the world
Hallucinogenic mushrooms
Some mushrooms possess psychedelic properties. They are commonly known as "magic mushrooms" "mushies" or "shrooms" and are available in smart shops in many parts of the world, though some countries have outlawed their sale. Because of their psychoactive properties, some mushrooms have played a role in native medicine, where they have been used in an attempt to effect mental and physical healing, and to facilitate visionary states.
Amanita phalloides accounts for the majority of fatal mushroom poisonings worldwide.
Poisonous mushrooms
Of the many thousands of mushroom species in the world, only 32 have been associated with fatalities, and an additional 52 have been identified as containing significant toxins. By far the majority of mushroom poisonings are not fatal, but the majority of fatal poisonings are attributable to the Amanita phalloides mushroom.
Famous poisonings
Roman Emperor Claudius is said to have been murdered by being fed the death cap mushroom. Pope Clement VII is also rumored to have been murdered this way. Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and Tsaritsa Natalia Naryshkina are believed to have died from eating the death cap mushroom. The composer Johann Schobert died in Paris, along with his wife and one of his children, after insisting that certain poisonous mushrooms were edible.

References: Wikipedia
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