Structure and Physiology of Fungi

There is considerable variation in the structure, size, and complexity of various fungal species. For example, fungi include the microscopic yeasts, the molds seen on contaminated bread, and the common mushrooms.

Molds consist of long, branching filaments of cells called hyphae (singular, hypha). A tangled mass of hyphae visible to the unaided eye is a mycelium (plural, mycelia). In some molds, the cytoplasm passes through and among cells of the hypha uninterrupted by cross walls. These fungi are said to be coenocytic fungi. Those fungi that have cross walls are called septate fungi, since the cross walls are called septa.

Yeasts are microscopic, unicellular fungi with a single nucleus and eukaryotic organelles. They reproduce asexually by a process of budding. In this process, a new cell forms at the surface of the original cell, enlarges, and then breaks free to assume an independent existence.

Some species of fungi have the ability to shift from the yeast form to the mold form and vice versa. These fungi are dimorphic. Many fungal pathogens exist in the body in the yeast form but revert to the mold form in the laboratory when cultivated.

Reproduction in yeasts usually involves spores. Spores are produced by either sexual or asexual means. Asexual spores may be free and unprotected at the tips of hyphae, where they are called conidia (Figure 1 ). Asexual spores may also be formed within a sac, in which case they are called sporangiospores. 

Figure 1

The microscopic structures of a septate fungus showing asexually producedconidia that leave the fungus and germinate to produce a new mycelium.

Nutrition. Fungi grow best where there is a rich supply of organic matter. Most fungi are saprobic (obtaining nutrients from dead organic matter). Since they lack photosynthetic pigments, fungi cannot perform photosynthesis and must obtain their nutrients from preformed organic matter. They are therefore chemoheterotrophic organisms.

Most fungi grow at an acidic pH of about 5.0, although some species grow at lower and higher pH levels. Most fungi grow at about 25°C (room temperature) except for pathogens, which grow at 37°C (body temperature). Fungi store glycogen for their energy needs and use glucose and maltose for immediate energy metabolism. Most species are aerobic, except for the fermentation yeasts that grow in both aerobic and anaerobic environments.

Reproduction. Asexual reproduction occurs in the fungi when spores form by mitosis. These spores can be conidia, sporangiospores, arthrospores (fragments of hyphae), or chlamydospores (spores with thick walls).

During sexual reproduction, compatible nuclei unite within the mycelium and form sexual spores. Sexually opposite cells may unite within a single mycelium, or different mycelia may be required. When the cells unite, the nuclei fuse and form a diploid nucleus. Several divisions follow, and the haploid state is reestablished.

Fungal spores are important in the identification of the fungus, since the spores are unique in shape, color, and size. A single spore is capable of germinating and reestablishing the entire mycelium. Spores are also the method for spreading fungi in the environment. Finally, the nature of the sexual spores is used for classifying fungi into numerous divisions.