Fungi (fŭnˈjĪ) [key], kingdom of heterotrophic single-celled, multinucleated, or multicellular organisms, including yeasts, molds, and mushrooms. The organisms live as parasites, symbionts, or saprobes (see saprophyte). Previously classified in the plant kingdom, fungi are nonmotile, like plants, but lack the vascular tissues (phloem and xylem) that form the true roots, stems, and leaves of plants. Most coenocytic (multinucleated) or multicelluar fungi are composed of multiple filaments, called hyphae, grouped together into a discrete organism called a mycelium. The cell walls of most fungi are of chitin compounds instead of cellulose; a group fungi known as cryptomycota lack chitinous cell walls. In many ways fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants, and they have been thought to share a common protist ancestor with animals. A recent classification system suggested by nucleic acid (genetic material) comparisons places the fungi with the animals and the plants in an overarching taxonomic group called the eukarya.

Most fungi are capable of asexual and sexual reproduction. Asexual reproduction is by fragmentation or spore formation. Those that reproduce sexually produce gametes in specialized areas of the hyphae called gametangia. The gametes may be released to fuse into spores elsewhere, or the gametangia themselves may fuse. In some cases dikaryons [ di   =  two, karyo   =  nucleus], which are found only among fungi, result when unspecialized hyphae fuse but their nuclei remain distinct for part of the life cycle.

Unlike algae or plants, fungi lack the chlorophyll necessary for photosynthesis and must therefore live as parasites or saprobes (see parasite). Typically they release digestive enzymes onto a food source, partially dissolving it to make the necessary organic or inorganic nutrients available. Some parasitic types obtain their food directly from the cells of a living food source. Some types of fungi are involved in symbiotic relationships, for example, lichens (a combination of a fungus and a green alga or a cyanobacterium) and the mycorrhizae (symbiosis between a fungus and the roots of a vascular plant).

Some fungi are pathogenic to humans and other animals. Such diseases are called mycoses or fungal infections. Some molds, in particular, release toxic chemicals called mycotoxins that can result in poisoning or death. Various fungi can also cause serious damage to fruit harvests and other crops (see diseases of plants).

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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