Christensen, Martha Department of Botany, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming.
Stone, Jeffrey K. Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon.
Last reviewed:April 2021
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The subdiscipline in mycology and ecology that examines community composition and structure; responses, activities, and interactions of single fungal species; and the functions of fungi in ecosystems. Fungi (that is, the true fungi, or Eumycota) display an extraordinary diversity of ecological interactions and life history strategies, but are alike in being efficient heterotrophs. In all ecosystems, producers (generally plants and some bacteria) synthesize cell components by using solar energy to chemically reduce carbon dioxide and assemble carbohydrates into the complex polymers of cell walls. Heterotrophs consume and disassemble, obtaining energy from the catabolism of photosynthetically formed carbohydrates and other molecules. Fungi and bacteria are the primary decomposers, facilitating the flow of energy and the cycling of materials through ecosystems. Both classes of organisms occur wherever there is organic matter. With an estimated 2–4 million species worldwide, of which only about 150,000 have been named, the fungi (Fig. 1) rank just below the insects in biodiversity. In addition, water molds (oomycetes) are often included in studies of fungal ecology. Water molds resemble fungi in having a filamentous growth form and occurring as plant parasites or free-living saprobes (organisms living on decaying organic matter) in soil or decaying vegetation. See also: Biodiversity; Ecological energetics; Ecology; Ecosystem; Fungi; Mushroom; Mycology
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