This first exercise will serve as a brief introduction to the world of fungi, a large and heterogeneous assemblage of microorganisms. There are about 70,000 named species of fungi and this is believed to be about 5% of the total number of species that exist in nature. We will not learn them all during this course.
Many of these organisms are detrimental, inciting a large number of plant diseases, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars worth of economic crops each year, and an increasing number of animal diseases, including a number of human maladies. On the other hand, there is a long and rapidly growing list of useful fungi. They have been used in the preparation of food and beverages for thousands of years. There are many fungi that are themselves edible. Industry has used other fungi in the manufacture of many valuable organic compounds, including organic acids, vitamins, antibiotics and hormones. They have been used in the research laboratory to study metabolic pathways, mineral nutrition, genetics and a variety of other problems. But perhaps their greatest contribution has been, and continues to be, their role in recycling carbon and other essential elements in the ecosystem. Since all of them are heterotrophic, they rely on organic material, either living or dead, as a source of energy. Thus, many are excellent scavengers in nature, breaking down dead animal and vegetable material into simpler compounds which become available to other members of the ecosystem.
A number of fungal specimens and exhibits, some economically and ecologically important, may be on display in the laboratory. Browse among these demonstrations and try to get a perspective of the general nature of fungi, their diversity in growth form and conspicuous underlying similarities among members within various taxonomic groups. Undoubtedly, many of you already have observed some of these forms in their natural habitats. You will be observing most of them in greater detail later in the semester.
Included in the display will be:a) fungal diseases of plants b) fungal diseases of animals, including people c) fungi used in industry d) fungi associated with wood decay e) some mycological literature of historical interest