Fungi on Log
The Kingdom Fungi includes some of the most important organisms, both in terms of their ecological and economic roles. By breaking down dead organic material, they continue the cycle of nutrients through ecosystems.
In addition, most vascular plants could not grow without the symbiotic fungi, or mycorrhizae, that inhabit their roots and supply essential nutrients. Other fungi provide numerous drugs (such as penicillin and other antibiotics), foods like mushrooms, truffles and morels, and the bubbles in bread, champagne, and beer.
Fungi also cause a number of plant and animal diseases: in humans, ringworm, athlete's foot, and several more serious diseases are caused by fungi.
Because fungi are more chemically and genetically similar to animals than other organisms, this makes fungal diseases very difficult to treat. Plant diseases caused by fungi include rusts, smuts, and leaf, root, and stem rots, and may cause severe damage to crops. However, a number of fungi, in particular the yeasts, are important "model organisms" for studying problems in genetics and molecular biology.
The organisms of the fungal lineage include mushrooms, rusts, smuts, puffballs, truffles, morels, molds, and yeasts, as well as many less well-known organisms. More than 70,000 species of fungi have been described; however, some estimates of total numbers suggest that 1.5 million species may exist.
As the sister group of animals and part of the eukaryotic crown group that radiated about a billion years ago, the fungi constitute an independent group equal in rank to that of plants and animals. They share with animals the ability to export hydrolytic enzymes that break down biopolymers, which can be absorbed for nutrition. Rather than requiring a stomach to accomplish digestion, fungi live in their own food supply and simply grow into new food as the local environment becomes nutrient depleted.
Most biologists have seen dense filamentous fungal colonies growing on rich nutrient agar plates, but in nature the filaments can be much longer and the colonies less dense. When one of the filaments contacts a food supply, the entire colony mobilizes and reallocates resources to exploit the new food. Should all food become depleted, sporulation is triggered. Although the fungal filaments and spores are microscopic, the colony can be very large with individuals of some species rivaling the mass of the largest animals or plants.
Glen Helen Nature Preserve is the legacy of alumnus Hugh Taylor Birch, who, in 1929, donated the wooded glen to Antioch College in memory of his daughter, Helen. With this gift, the College accepted the responsibility of preserving the land in perpetuity. Additional gifts expanded the preserve, which now encompasses 1000 acres, all accessible from a 25-mile network of footpaths. Today, that mission is carried forward by Antioch College through the Glen Helen Ecology Institute, which manages the land and coordinates the educational programs of “The Glen.” On even a short walk, visitors can view spectacular wildflowers, 400 year-old trees, limestone cliffs with waterfalls and overhangs, and the beautiful yellow spring for which the town is named.