Characteristics of Fungi

Section Summary

Fungi are eukaryotic organisms that appeared on land more than 450 million years ago, but clearly have an evolutionary history far greater. They are heterotrophs and contain neither photosynthetic pigments such as chlorophyll, nor organelles such as chloroplasts. Because fungi feed on decaying and dead matter, they are termed saprobes. Fungi are important decomposers that release essential elements into the environment. External enzymes called exoenzymes digest nutrients that are absorbed by the body of the fungus, which is called a thallus. A thick cell wall made of chitin surrounds the cell. Fungi can be unicellular as yeasts, or develop a network of filaments called a mycelium, which is often described as mold. Most species multiply by asexual and sexual reproductive cycles and display an alternation of generations. In one group of fungi, no sexual cycle has been identified. Sexual reproduction involves plasmogamy (the fusion of the cytoplasm), followed by karyogamy (the fusion of nuclei). Following these processes, meiosis generates haploid spores.