Fungi

Fungi are unique and important organisms which belong to their own kingdom, completely separate from plants and animals.

Amanita muscaria
The distinctive fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), renowned for its hallucinogenic properties (Image: Geoffrey Kibby)

Fungi are not plants...

...they have no leaves or flowers, no cellulose or chlorophyll. Instead they comprise microscopic, thread-like structures termed ‘hyphae’, through which they absorb nutrients.

They are a hugely diverse group of great economic importance, yet they remain vastly under-studied compared to plants. It is estimated that there may be 700,000-5 million species of fungi in the world. Even using the moderate and most widely cited estimate of 1.5 million, this makes fungi more than six times as diverse as flowering plants. Yet only about 100,000 species have so far been described.

As well as the familiar mushrooms we buy in shops and see in fields, fungi include coral fungi, puffballs, and stinkhorns, tree brackets, truffles and morels, Penicillium and other moulds, yeasts, crop-destroying rusts and smuts, and even a number of human pathogens including Cryptococcus, thrush, and ringworm.

Urocystis primulicola
Bird's eye primrose smut (Urocystis primulicola) (Image: © Dr A. Martyn Ainsworth)

What they do

Fungi are found in all habitats worldwide, from polar regions to the deep sea, and are a fundamental part of human life but often overlooked. They perform a wide range of vital functions, such as:

Recycling wastes

All fungi make their living by recycling animal and vegetable wastes, releasing the nutrients contained within. Without them our ecosystem would grind to a halt.

Helping forests grow

Many fungi, including numerous mushrooms, form special relationships (called 'mycorrhizae') with the roots of trees. They actively help trees grow by supplying them with essential trace elements and nutrients.

Hericium erinaceus
Bearded tooth (Hericium erinaceus) (Image: © Dr A. Martyn Ainsworth)

Antibiotics

Modern medicine depends on antibiotics, and so do we. Many of the most important – including penicillin – are derived from fungi, and major research projects are now underway to discover more.

Mycoprotein – the new meat substitute

Supermarkets are not only tempting us with colourful chanterelles, oyster mushrooms and Japanese shiitake, but also offering everything from quiches to sausages made with Quorn, a fungus-derived mycoprotein that can look and taste like meat.

Fungus beer, fungus bread…

Sounds unpleasant? Not when you remember that all yeasts are fungi, and without them there would be no rising dough for baking, nothing to brew for beer, and no fermentation for wine. 

Cyttaria Darwinii specimen collected by Darwin from Tierra Del Fuego
A specimen of Cyttaria darwinii (Darwin's fungus), collected by Charles Darwin from Tierra Del Fuego.

Kew's work with Fungi

Mycology, the study of fungi, has been part of Kew’s work for over a hundred years. The Fungarium (mycological herbarium) was founded in 1879 and is the largest and one of the most important global reference collections of fungi, totalling ~1.25 million specimens from around the world. Fungi in the reference collections are kept dried, whilst a small living collection of fungi is maintained deep frozen in liquid nitrogen.

Kew’s mycology specialists have pioneered research into fungi from across the world, working with overseas colleagues, and have also been actively involved in researching the fungi of the British Isles.

How our knowledge can help

Kew mycologists provide identifications for fungi involved in poisoning cases, both human and animal, working with hospitals, poisons units and others treating mushroom and other fungal poisonings. They also act as expert consultants in forensic cases and provide advice on conservation matters, including the identification of timber-rotting fungi in listed buildings and famous artefacts such as the Tudor battleship the Mary Rose.


Find out more

Explore our species profiles: Fungi

Agaricus arvensis
horse mushroom

Amanita muscaria
fly agaric

Calocybe gambosa
St George’s mushroom

Calvatia gigantea
giant puffball

Clathrus archeri
devil's fingers

Cyttaria darwinii
Darwin's fungus

Cyttaria darwinii
达尔文菌

Hericium erinaceus
bearded tooth

Leratiomyces ceres
redlead roundhead

Lycoperdon perlatum
common puffball

Morchella esculenta
common morel

Myriostoma coliforme
pepperpot earthstar

Puccinia libanotidis
moon carrot rust

Sparassis crispa
cauliflower fungus

Urocystis primulicola
bird’s-eye primrose smut


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