Mycology: Definition, History, and Careers

Mycology Definition

Mycology is the study of fungi, their relationships to each other and other organisms, and the unique biochemistry which sets them apart from other groups. Fungi are eukaryotic organism which belong to their own kingdom. Until advances in DNA technology, it was assumed that fungi were an offshoot of the plant kingdom. DNA and biochemical analysis has revealed that fungi are a separate lineage of eukaryotes, distinguished by their unique cell wall made of chitin and glucans which often surrounds multinucleated cells. Mycology is a necessary branch of biology because fungi is considerably different from both plants and animals.

History of Mycology

Until the 1800’s, it was assumed that fungi were simply a different kind of plant. Mushrooms, the reproductive bodies of fungi, were eaten, used as medicine, and used for their hallucinogenic effects since antiquity. Many classic Greek philosophers and naturalists considered fungi, but still assumed they were more related to plants. By the mid-1800’s the microscope was invented, and scientists began to examine the inner workings of fungi. Microscopes revealed that fungi had distinct features, separate from both plants and animal cells. The term mycology was coined in 1836 in a paper by M.J. Berkeley, when fungi were beginning to be recognized as their own unique kingdom.

However, it was not until the advent of modern biochemistry and DNA analysis that it was fully realized how different fungi were. Instead of a cell wall made of cellulose, the wall in fungi is composed of glucans and chitin, molecules found in plants and insects, respectively. Instead of having a single nucleus, like most plants and animals, fungi are often multinucleated and contain special pores allowing the cytoplasm and nucleus to flow freely between various chambers in the fungal organism. DNA analysis revealed a closer relation to animals than plants. As scientists observed fungal lifecycles further, they realize that the majority of most fungi spends its time as a mold or ooze. This multicellular lifeform moves its way through decaying organic material, utilizing the minerals and organic molecules as it goes. Not only was fungi the major decomposing organism in the world, scientist also determined that certain fungi were responsible for events like fermentation and crop diseases.

With this, the field of mycology exploded. Agricultural mycology focuses on utilizing and controlling fungi in commercial crops. Toxicologists study mushroom and fungi for compounds which adversely affect other organisms. Pharmaceutical companies race to extract useful compounds from mushrooms. Careers in mycology are as diverse and complex as the field itself.

Careers in Mycology

Mycology first became an important science in the agricultural industry, and remains so today. A phytopathologist studies plant diseases, especially those which affect crops. Fungi are a major pest for many crops, but also serve symbiotic roles and allow plants to extract nutrients and water from the soil. Mycology is needed to distinguish between beneficial and harmful fungi, as well as to treat crops and prevent future infections. Further, certain types of fungi are used as pesticides, as they are more natural than synthetic pesticides and can kill targeted insects.

However, mycology has expanded well beyond its origins in agriculture. Once it was realized how broad and diverse the fungi kingdom is, the various roles of fungi in society were better understood. For instance, cheese is produced by various fungi. Mycology can classify and understand these organisms, leading to better and more efficiently produced cheese and dairy products. Yeast is also a form of fungi, and understanding the process of fermentation carried out by yeast is a science in itself. Fermentation science degrees can found from the bachelor level up, and graduates can work in the brewing and distilling industries, creating beer, wines and liquor. Yeast is also used in bread making, and microbiologists are required to maintain the cultures to produce enough yeast for bread production.

A specialized field of mycology is mycotoxicology, or the study of the toxins produced by mushrooms. Typically, a mycotoxicologist has a doctorate degree in biochemistry or organic chemistry, or a medical doctorate with concentrations in mycology and toxins. Fungi produce a variety of chemicals which have toxic effects on all kinds of organisms. Humans have eaten mushrooms since the earliest hunter-gatherers, but many mushrooms remain highly toxic. Other compounds found in mushrooms have potentially beneficial properties which could be used in medicine. Many mycotoxicologists work for pharmaceutical companies, trying to develop new drugs based on these compounds.

Mycology contains still more specializations, and is a continually evolving field. As more research is done, fungi are becoming a large and complex kingdom. Research is expanding and focusing on many special areas, including interesting applications for certain fungi. Some of these applications include radiotrophic fungi which appear to grow in the presence of radioactivity and could possibly alleviate radioactive wastes, and fungi which can break down complex organic substances into carbon dioxide. Many of these applications have tremendous commercial value, and researchers are needed at many institutions to explore these aspects of mycology.

Finally, an ethnomycologist is a scientist who studies the historical uses of fungi. Cultures have used mushroom as food, medicine, hallucinogens, and for a variety of other things. Ethnomycologists study these uses and inform the public and front-line researchers about which fungi have known effects and which are benign. Considering the immense size and diversity of fungi, and the relatively unorganized history of the classification of fungi, ethnomycologists provide a critical function in sorting through the dense but helpful information already gathered by past cultures and societies. The field of mycology is continually expanding as these many professions push the boundaries of knowledge and fill in the missing gaps.

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