Bracket fungus (Polyporus) growing on wood.
Any of about 80,000 known species of organisms belonging to the kingdom Fungi, including yeasts
, rusts, smuts
, and mildews
. Though formerly classified as plants, fungi lack chlorophyll
and the organized plant structures of stems, roots, and leaves. The thallus
, or body, of a typical fungus consists of a mycelium
through which cytoplasm
flows. The mycelium generally reproduces by forming spores
, either directly or in special fruiting bodies that make up the visible part of a fungus. The soil provides an ideal habitat for many species, although fungi can also live in the air and water and on plants and animals. Fungi are found in all regions of the world that have sufficient moisture to enable them to grow. Lacking chlorophyll, fungi are unable to carry out photosynthesis
and must obtain nutrients by secreting enzymes
onto the surface on which they are growing. These enzymes digest organic matter, forming solutions of nutrients that can be absorbed through the mycelium. Decomposition of organic matter by fungi results in the release of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus into the soil or the atmosphere. Essential to many food and industrial processes, fungi are used in the production of enzymes, organic acids, vitamins
, and antibiotics
. Fungi can also destroy crops, cause diseases in humans (e.g., candidiasis and ringworm
), and ruin clothing and food with mildew and rot. Parasitic fungi invade living organisms, often causing disease and death (see parasitism
), whereas other fungi establish symbiotic relationships with algae
), plants (forming mycorrhizae; see mycorrhiza
), and certain insects.
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Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.