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Some fungi are parasitic, infecting either plants or animals. Smut and Dutch elm disease affect plants, whereas athlete’s foot and candidiasis (thrush) are medically important fungal infections in humans. In environments poor in nitrogen, some fungi resort to predation of nematodes (small non-segmented roundworms). Species of Arthrobotrys fungi have a number of mechanisms to trap nematodes. One mechanism involves constricting rings within the network of hyphae. The rings swell when they touch the nematode, gripping it in a tight hold. The fungus penetrates the tissue of the worm by extending specialized hyphae called haustoria    . Many parasitic fungi possess haustoria, as these structures penetrate the tissues of the host, release digestive enzymes within the host's body, and absorb the digested nutrients.


Fungi reproduce sexually and/or asexually. Perfect fungi reproduce both sexually and asexually, while the so-called imperfect fungi reproduce only asexually (by mitosis).

In both sexual and asexual reproduction, fungi produce spores that disperse from the parent organism by either floating on the wind or hitching a ride on an animal. Fungal spores are smaller and lighter than plant seeds. The giant puffball mushroom bursts open and releases trillions of spores. The huge number of spores released increases the likelihood of landing in an environment that will support growth ( [link] ).

Part A is a photo of a puffball mushroom, which is round and white. Part B is an illustration of a puffball mushroom releasing spores through its exploded top.
The (a) giant puff ball mushroom releases (b) a cloud of spores when it reaches maturity. (credit a: modification of work by Roger Griffith; credit b: modification of work by Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation)

Asexual reproduction

Fungi reproduce asexually by fragmentation, budding, or producing spores. Fragments of hyphae can grow new colonies. Somatic cells in yeast form buds. During budding (a type of cytokinesis), a bulge forms on the side of the cell, the nucleus divides mitotically, and the bud ultimately detaches itself from the mother cell ( [link] ).

 Micrograph shows budding yeast cells. The parent cells are stained dark blue and round, with smaller, teardrop shaped cells budding from them. The cells are about 2 microns across and 3 microns long.
The dark cells in this bright field light micrograph are the pathogenic yeast Histoplasma capsulatum, seen against a backdrop of light blue tissue. Histoplasma primarily infects lungs but can spread to other tissues, causing histoplasmosis, a potentially fatal disease. (credit: modification of work by Dr. Libero Ajello, CDC; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

The most common mode of asexual reproduction is through the formation of asexual spores, which are produced by one parent only (through mitosis) and are genetically identical to that parent ( [link] ). Spores allow fungi to expand their distribution and colonize new environments. They may be released from the parent thallus either outside or within a special reproductive sac called a sporangium    .

The asexual and sexual stages of reproduction of fungi are shown. In the asexual life cycle, a haploid (1n) mycelium undergoes mitosis to form spores. Germination of the spores results in the formation of more mycelia. In the sexual life cycle, the mycelium undergoes plasmogamy, a process in which haploid cells fuse to form a heterokaryon (a cell with two or more haploid nuclei). This is called the heterokaryotic stage. The dikaryotic cells (cells with two more more nuclei) undergo karyogamy, a process in which the nuclei fuse to form a diploid (2n) zygote. The zygote undergoes meiosis to form haploid (1n) spores. Germination of the spores results in the formation of a multicellular mycelium.
Fungi may have both asexual and sexual stages of reproduction.

There are many types of asexual spores. Conidiospores are unicellular or multicellular spores that are released directly from the tip or side of the hypha. Other asexual spores originate in the fragmentation of a hypha to form single cells that are released as spores; some of these have a thick wall surrounding the fragment. Yet others bud off the vegetative parent cell. Sporangiospores are produced in a sporangium ( [link] ).

 Micrograph shows several long, thread-like hyphae stained blue. One hypha has a round sporangium, about 35 microns in diameter, at the tip. The sporangium is dark blue at the neck, and grainy white–blue elsewhere. Spores that have already been released appear as small white ovals.
This bright field light micrograph shows the release of spores from a sporangium at the end of a hypha called a sporangiophore. The organism is a Mucor sp. fungus, a mold often found indoors. (credit: modification of work by Dr. Lucille Georg, CDC; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Sexual reproduction

Sexual reproduction introduces genetic variation into a population of fungi. In fungi, sexual reproduction often occurs in response to adverse environmental conditions. During sexual reproduction, two mating types are produced. When both mating types are present in the same mycelium, it is called homothallic    , or self-fertile. Heterothallic mycelia require two different, but compatible, mycelia to reproduce sexually.

Although there are many variations in fungal sexual reproduction, all include the following three stages ( [link] ). First, during plasmogamy    (literally, “marriage or union of cytoplasm”), two haploid cells fuse, leading to a dikaryotic stage where two haploid nuclei coexist in a single cell. During karyogamy    (“nuclear marriage”), the haploid nuclei fuse to form a diploid zygote nucleus. Finally, meiosis takes place in the gametangia (singular, gametangium) organs, in which gametes of different mating types are generated. At this stage, spores are disseminated into the environment.

Review the characteristics of fungi by visiting this interactive site from Wisconsin-online.

Section summary

Fungi are eukaryotic organisms that appeared on land more than 450 million years ago. They are heterotrophs and contain neither photosynthetic pigments such as chlorophyll, nor organelles such as chloroplasts. Because fungi feed on decaying and dead matter, they are saprobes. Fungi are important decomposers that release essential elements into the environment. External enzymes digest nutrients that are absorbed by the body of the fungus, which is called a thallus. A thick cell wall made of chitin surrounds the cell. Fungi can be unicellular as yeasts, or develop a network of filaments called a mycelium, which is often described as mold. Most species multiply by asexual and sexual reproductive cycles and display an alternation of generations. Another group of fungi do not have a sexual cycle. Sexual reproduction involves plasmogamy (the fusion of the cytoplasm), followed by karyogamy (the fusion of nuclei). Meiosis regenerates haploid individuals, resulting in haploid spores.

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