I will refrain from complaining about the weather; you have probably heard enough of that lately. Standing in the pouring rain I was talking to a woman the other day. She said that with all the rain she was beginning to feel like a mushroom.
What a delightfully optimistic point of view. A mushroom would probably appreciate the ongoing precipitation.
Mushrooms are a group within the kingdom of the fungi. While we think of mushrooms as little spongy organisms, usually with a stem and funny hat that grow on the forest floor, the fungi come in many shapes, sizes and places, including the ocean.
Marine fungi are defined as those that live either in the ocean all the time or those that can tolerate living in salt water. We have known for a very long time that there are fungi in the ocean, but science has woefully neglected these organisms for many years, resulting in a poor understanding of their role and diversity.
Earlier experts in the field of marine fungi declared that there were no more than 500 species and they didn’t expect to find many more. Experts can be wrong, and these were. Today, there are 1,500 species described and it is estimated that for every known marine fungus there are nine others that have not been described and identified. Many live in the dark and unexplored depths of the ocean.
Why would anyone want to know about marine fungi? As far as fungi are concerned, many of them are not attractive organisms and some are very undesirable. Fungi live on land, in freshwater, in marine water, and often on or in other organisms, plants or animals. They live between our toes as a fungal infection called athletes foot and they live in our refrigerators and spoil our food when we were too slow to eat it first.
Yet, while there has been little research into marine fungi, one of the promising discoveries is in the field of medicine. Many fungi produce chemicals in defense of being overgrown by bacteria, small animals called protozoa and fungi of another species. These chemicals can be isolated and used in the defense against ailments like bacterial or fungal infections and inflammations. Some drugs used in cancer treatment also originate from marine fungi. A world of discovery of medical treatments may literally be laying on the bottom of the ocean.
If you still think fungi are boring here are some other tidbits of knowledge about a little-studied group. There are many fungi in ocean sediment. There are also many little worms called nematodes that live in the sediment. Usually, fungi are grouped as decomposers, which means they have the decency to wait until an organism dies before they eat it. As it turns out, that is not always true, either.
As already mentioned, some fungi live in or on other organisms as parasites. Apparently, some fungi are even predators. We usually think of predators as large, fast animals with big teeth and ferocious appetites. It turns out that some fungi can grow slings like lassos and capture nematodes with those. The unlucky worm is then choked to death and consumed. It is believed that the fungus attracts the nematodes with an irresistible chemical smell, effectively laying a trap before it slings it.
The marine world is full of unexpected facts and fascinating organisms and I savor the thought that there will be years of discoveries ahead.