Oh, those mysterious fungi! Neither plant nor animal nor mineral, they have played an important role in civilization for centuries. Their effect on our health is indisputable; they have saved countless lives, but they have taken many as well. We have yet to decide whether we would be better or worse without them.
A fungus is a life form most similar to plants. But unlike a plant, which can derive energy from sunlight via a special molecule called chlorophyll (which gives the plant it’s green color), the fungus must glean all it’s energy from organic matter. So we find fungus growing on or in other life forms, be they dead or alive. And it is this intimate relationship with plants and animals that cause fungi to be meaningful to us in so many ways.
The single most important influence of fungi on our health is their utility as a source of crucial medications. That magnificent lifesaver, Penicillin, and all it’s relatives are derived from the fungus Penicillium. And voila! Strep throat is turned into a nuisance rather than a killer. Pneumonia is no longer a major cause of death in the modern world!
Another critical medication extracted from fungus is cyclosporine.This drug is used both to battle cancer and to control overactive immune systems. People with lymphoma or cancer of the retina (eye) can be cured by this. Suffers of auto-immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis or severe psoriasis can have their condition put into remission by this fungal derivative.
Yes, fungal medications can be lifesavers. Fungi also are important to our health due to their role in nutrition. One form of fungus, yeast, is the critical fermenting element in the production of beer and wine. It also is important to converting grain into bread as we know it. Where would we be without bread and wine? Add to that the utility of fungi in ripening cheese (Camembert, Roquefort, Bleu, Gorgonzola – to name a few) and you have a feast! Additionally, mushrooms on their own have substantial nutritive and sensory value. They are rich in minerals and B-vitamins and are a valued food source.
So what could be bad about this delicious and curative life form? They are, unfortunately, also a source of human misery.There are several ways in which the presence of fungi can do critical harm to a person. Perhaps the most obvious way fungi harm people is that some are extraordinarily toxic when ingested. The majority of mushroom poisonings are caused by Amanitas species–it takes less than an ounce to kill a person. To make matters worse, they look remarkably similar to edible mushrooms, and taste delicious when cooked! Mushroom poison is so efficient it has been utilized by trained assassins during the course of modern history.
Fungi can also present a danger to humans by causing serious disease. “Valley Fever” is caused by fungal spores that are inhaled in desert areas of the western hemisphere, classically the San Juaquin Valley in California. There is also Cryptococcus, which causes meningitis and is a major form of death in folks with impaired immune systems, such as those with HIV, or those on medication to suppress or control their immune systems. Candida, though rarely deadly, can cause discomfort and disease in people. And the famous Stachybotrys (black mold) is known to be a potent respiratory irritant in those unfortunate enough to dwell in homes infested by it.
Lastly, a less obvious but none-the-less crucial way fungus can harm people is by destroying our food source. It is a major cause of crop destruction, both above and below ground. Efforts to prevent starvation have in part been focused on preventing fungi from rotting food before harvest.
A fungus is typically a small organism, often invisible to the human eye. Yet, its effects on our species have been tremendous, in both positive and negative ways. It can yield both miraculous cure and sudden death, and is a wonderful example of the dramatic power present in our natural world.