For most of my life, I never thought much about fungi. My consideration of this kingdom of organisms was limited to whether I wanted any mushrooms on my pizza. However, during my first year teaching biology, I fell in love with fungi. I now even go crazy over them when I spot them on family outings! They are an amazing and still quite mysterious group of living things.
Fungi were once thought to be plants, back when plant or animal were the only two options. Looking at them, you can understand why scientists once thought they were plant-like. Unlike plants, though, fungi do not have chlorophyll and do not conduct photosynthesis. In fact, scientists now think fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Like animals, they are heterotrophs and get their energy from other living things. However, while animals ingest their food and then digest the nutrients, fungi secrete enzymes to digest their food before it enters their bodies. And the mushroom, or other above ground structure, is just for reproduction. The actual fungal body is made up of tiny filaments called hyphae that form a tangled white mat of threads called mycelium.
There are seven fungi phyla, three of which are commonly studied by students: Basidiomycota (mushrooms, puffballs, jelly fungi), Ascomycota (mildew, mold, morels), and Zygomycota (bread molds). My students survey the diversity of Kingdom Fungi by going on a fungus hunt. I give small groups mushroom field guides and we venture outside. I have found late winter and early spring the best time for this activity, especially a day or two after a good rain. Groups are instructed to find as many different kinds of fungi as possible without disturbing the organisms. When students find a good one, they call the class over to inspect and identify it. The group with the most fungi found wins the hunt. We have found mushrooms of every size and color, shelf fungi on trees and logs, and amazing purple and yellow jelly fungi on twigs. We also inspect the evidence of mycelium under and inside rotting logs. The experience is something my students remember as we continue our study of fungi.
To get a better look at the reproductive cycle of fungi, my students moisten bread and seal it in plastic bags. You can also have students use the scientific method to determine what conditions the mold needs to grow, such as temperature, moisture, and light. This works best with fresh bread that has no preservatives. Once the bread mold grows, students can observe the spore producing structures with a magnifying lens or microscope. I have them draw the reproductive life cycles of the different types of fungi.
Finally, my students research the impact of fungi on humans and the world. Along with bacteria, fungi serve as decomposers, breaking down dead organisms to recycle their nutrients. You can tie this in to symbiotic relationships and ecology. Researching the history of penicillin is another way to highlight the importance of fungi. Of course, not all fungi are beneficial. I also have my students research fungal diseases, such as athlete’s foot and ringworm. Once my students have completed the unit on fungi, they have much more respect for these little known organisms. You can also try the lessons below.
Fungi Lessons and Activities:
Students identify the distinguishing features of fungi, observe samples of fungi and work in groups to research and present a report on a particular type of fungus. They examine the possible role of fungi in the Salem Witch Trials.
Students investigate the characteristics of the Fungus Kingdom. They collect a fungus sample and create a spore print, examine fungi under a microscope, read and discuss articles, and take a quiz.
Students explore cellular respiration and population growth in yeasts. They observe and quantify the amount of respiration occurring in yeast-molasses cultures and how environmental factors affect yeast population growth.
Students explore the process of decomposition and draw conclusions about the important role decomposers play in the flow of energy. They complete diagrams of the energy flow by adding decomposers and explain how decomposers get their energy. Students explain why decomposers are important to other living things.