Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A kingdom of... fungi!

Fungi are very common everywhere and play an important role in the decomposition of organic matter. An uneaten piece of fruit or any other food within a short time becomes covered with a layer of mold which is nothing but the reproductive bodies of fungi. 

In nature these fungi recycle the nutrients which end up in the soil thus becoming available again for other plants.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of a variety of fungi that generally have a stem on which the familiar gilled structure grows. The best known species are the cultivated edible species. 

Until a few decades ago, fungi were considered as part of the plant kingdom but now they form part of a kingdom. This is because although they have characteristics in common with plants, animals and bacteria they evolved separately from them. They have their own characteristics but are more closely related to animals than to plants.

About 100,00 species of fungi have been described although it is believed that hundreds of thousands if not millions more are still to be discovered. In Malta about 300 species have been recorded although this number does not include the microscopic species.

While fungi can cause serious diseases in humans they play an important role in the pharmacological and food industries. Perhaps the best known antibiotic is penicillin which was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 when he noticed that a fungus which was contaminating his bacteria specimens was actually killing the bacteria. 

Another closely related species is used to inoculate cheese such as the Stilton and Roquefort to give them a unique taste and texture.

Baker’s yeast, a single-celled fungus, is used in the production of bread while another species of yeast is used in fermentation which leads to the production of alcoholic drinks. Other species are used in the fermentation of Soya beans in the production of soy sauce.

This article was published in The Times on 08.02.2012

No comments:

Post a Comment