Characteristics

Fungi are eukaryotic, nonphotosynthetic organisms, and most are multicellular heterotrophs. Most fungi are microscopic molds or yeasts. Molds, such as the fungi that grow on bread and oranges, are tangled masses of filaments of cells. Yeasts are unicellular fungi whose colonies resemble those of bacteria. Yeasts are best known as the microorganisms that make bread rise. The study of fungi is called mycology (mie-KAHL-uh-jee).

Obtaining Nutrients

Fungi get their nutrients by absorbing organic molecules from their environment. Fungi also secrete enzymes into their food and then absorb the digested nutrients through their cell walls. Like animals, fungi store energy in the form of glycogen. Most fungi are saprophytic—that is, they live on organic compounds that they absorb from dead organisms in the environment. This characteristic makes fungi a very important recycler of organic material in nature.

Structure of Fungi

Filaments of fungi are called hyphae (HIE-fee) (singular, hypha). The cell walls of hyphae contain chitin (KIE-tin), a polysaccharide that also makes up the exoskeleton of insects, crustaceans, and other arthropods. The presence of chitin distinguishes cell walls of fungi from those of plants, which have cellulose but no chitin.

A mat of hyphae that forms the body of a fungus is a mycelium (mie-SEE-lee-uhm). In some species, the cells that make up hyphae are divided by cross sections called septa (SEP-tuh) (singular, septum). Hyphae whose cells are divided by septa are called septate hyphae.

Septum

Nuclei

Hyphae

Cell wall

Hyphae

(a) SEPTATE HYPHAE

Nuclei

Cell wall

(b) COENOCYTIC HYPHAE

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