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Page last updated at 12:15 GMT, Friday, 28 November 2008

10 things fungi have done for us

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Marmite, the yeast extract spread
Fungi-derived Marmite is mighty
Mycologists are a rare breed, and scientists worry the UK will miss out lucrative fungus-based discoveries. Like what?

Mushroom risotto. And umbrellas for fairies. Obviously fry-ups, which go without saying. But apart from these, what have fungi ever given us?

All manner of discoveries, says Dr Peter Roberts, of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and one of eight mycologists left in the UK, such as:

1. Marmite. Ditto Vegemite and Cenovis, the Australian and Swiss versions. Love it or hate it, the dark salty spread so tasty on toast is a yeast extract, and yeast is a type of fungus.

2. Beer and bread too are made with yeast, and both are staples of the British diet. Beer is fermented with the fungus Saccharomyces cerevisiae (brewer's yeast), or Saccharomyces carlsbergensis for lager-making, developed by Danish mycologist Emil Hansen. Wine, cider and perry traditionally use naturally-occurring yeasts for fermentation.

3. Quorn - the meat substitute - has perhaps less mainstream appeal but is popular with vegetarians who miss the mouth-feel of flesh. Sausages, mince and mock-chicken fillets are made from this vat-grown filamentous fungus. "A British success story," says Dr Roberts. Fearing a future shortage of protein-rich foods, scientists in the 1950s and 60s set about finding an alternative. After more than a decade of testing, Quorn products went on sale in 1985.

4. Orchids, like vegetarians, feed on fungi. The lush tropical blooms which bedeck boutique hotels and corporate suites are parasites of fungi, relying entirely on their fungal hosts for seed germination and subsequent growth.

Expensive truffle
A very sought-after fungi indeed

5. And gourmands, too. Truffles. Mould-ripened cheeses such as camembert, brie and stilton. Mmmm. And soy sauce and miso paste are among the many fermented foodstuffs in Asian cooking.

6. Soil and compost are broken down and enriched thanks to fungi, which account for 90% of nutrient recycling in ecosystems. "They basically turn dead leaves and wood into soil," says Dr Roberts. Fungi breaks down cellulose, and are the only organisms that can rot lignin, the hard constituent of wood.

7. Statins, the money-spinning anti-cholesterol drugs, were originally derived from fungi, notably Monascus ruber and Penicillium citrinum.

8. Penicillin, the pharmaceutical that has saved countless lives, was originally derived from a fungus, Penicillium chrysogenum. Several other antibiotics are also fungal in origin.

9. LSD, a drug, but not for medicinal purposes, was originally isolated from Claviceps purpurea in the 1940s by Albert Hofmann, a chemist with a particular interest in hallucinogenic fungi. He was also the first to isolate psilocybin from magic mushrooms.

10. And finally, fungi have given us athlete's foot, thrush and ringworm - and our houses dry rot. Perhaps less to be thankful for in these cases.

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