Fungi: Our Unsung Heroes

Historically, fungi have probably been the most underrated kingdom. That is until recent decades. The more that is understood about these organisms, the more possibilities present themselves. Fungi play a vital role in the ecosystem while having significant implications in anthropological, medicinal, environmental, and agricultural fields to name a few.

When I say vital role in the ecosystem, I really mean vital. Through their vast mycelia networks, fungi spread nutrients and retain water, characteristics that plants readily take advantage of. Fungi also provide to plants disease resistance, thermal resistance, protection from predation, and protection from climate change/droughts. Plants couldn’t exist without them. They break down the complex molecules that once belonged to living organisms into simpler compounds that are usable by others in the ecosystem. In addition to decomposing other organisms, fungi also break down rocks while extracting their nutrients. These two processes form our soil, a substance that, while essential, is often taken for granted. And of course, this is all in addition to having a fair number of deliciously delectable members of the fungal kingdom.

In essence, our team’s biogrounds efforts are to give credit where credit is due.  Our goal is to recognize the presence and stress the importance of fungi in the ecosystem that is the UVA campus. It is important to recognize, however, that fungi are actually everywhere. Their spores are on you right now. Every square inch of soil has up to 8 miles of mycelia and it stretches everywhere. Our search will be primarily for mushrooms and lichen (which is basically a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a photosynthetic organism) simply because we can see them without a microscope. We will be photographing them for later identification, so keep an eye out for some pictures in future blog posts!

Most of the information in this post I derived from “The Future is Fungi,” a Paul Stamets video lecture (link below). Stamets is a pioneer in the field of mycology and if you set aside the hour and a half that it takes to hear him out, I promise you will agree that the future really is fungi.

Stamets lecture:

Post by Daniel Lassiter, Second-Year, Civil and Environmental Engineering