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The Fungus among Us

Ahuva Sofer

Fungi serve a major role in the maintenance of our world. And believe it or not, fungus has saved many lives. Welcome to the fascinating world of fungi

Sunday, April 22, 2018

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I t’s time to spring-clean your knapsack. You’re emptying out all the long-forgotten papers and prizes when you come across a nectarine — but it doesn’t look anything like the fresh nectarine you tossed in your briefcase just a few weeks before. It’s covered in little splotches of green and white fuzz. Ew, what is that?

Actually, it’s fungus. It might be ew, but it’s also important. Fungi serve a major role in the maintenance of our world. And believe it or not, fungus has saved many lives. Welcome to the fascinating world of fungi. 

What is Fungus, Anyway?

Does that mold creeping across the ceiling look alive to you? Well, actually, that’s because it is. Fungi are a group of living organisms consisting of mold, yeast, and mycelium (the root) and mushrooms (the fruit). Fungus feeds off living or non-living things. There are about 1.5 million kinds of fungi in the world. That’s a lot of fungus among us!

Cleaning Crew

Fungi is not just gross, though. Fungi can be fun! And more importantly, useful. Fungi breaks down organisms that could become poisonous and restores important nutrients to the soil. Fungi are kind of like the official “cleaning crew” of Planet Earth!

Mycologists are scientists who study fungi. Some mycologists spend their entire lives finding ways to clean the planet with fungi! Paul Stamets, a mycologist, saw that lakes and rivers were becoming polluted with bacteria, oil, or chemicals. Stamets knew that there are mushrooms that would “eat” these dangerous toxins and make the water safe again. He started the Ocean Blue Project to clean up lakes and rivers that became contaminated with poisonous toxins. Stamets grows toxin-eating fungi and then sends them to contaminated areas. The mushrooms soak up the pollutants, and the water becomes safe again. 

Working Hard

Fungus can even clean up radiation. In 1986, there was an accident at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl in the former USSR. Deadly doses of radiation were released, and Chernobyl became unsafe for people and animals.

But recently, a new form of black mushroom fungus was found growing in Chernobyl. Although the radiation killed all living things, these mushrooms were actually feeding off the radiation! The mushrooms are slowly removing the radiation from the area, leaving it cleaner and safer. There’s even a name for this: using fungi to clean up radioactive waste is called mycoremediation.

There’s also a kind of fungus that lives off plastic. Researchers have recently discovered a new kind of mushroom among mounds of plastic garbage in Pakistan. This is great news, because plastic does not biodegrade, meaning it does not rot and disintegrate. Plastic basically sticks around forever, piling up and polluting the planet. Scientists are studying this plastic-eating fungus in the hope of using it to solve the plastic-pollution problem.

Lucky Hosts 

There’s fungus among us, but did you know there’s also fungus inside us? We are all hosts to healthy fungi that live in our digestive system. Good fungi work together with the bacteria in our bodies to promote healthy digestion and prevent diseases. Thank those fungal guests for coming! (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 706)

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