Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Delicacy and danger from the woods

In many countries in Europe and elsewhere around the world, mushroom collecting is a popular activity especially during summer and autumn. Mushrooms are an ingredience to our meals, although many of them are known to be dangerously poisonous to humans. But did you know that there are animals which are able to resist the poison? Or that collecting mushrooms dates back to the middle-ages when the mushrooms were called “meat of the poor ones”?

Scaly Tooth (Sarcodon imbricatus), edible - image is under CC BY-NC-SA of Danish Mycological Society.

For humans, mushrooms are important in medicine (e.g. Penicillium), as model organisms, are used as drugs (e.g. Psilocybe bohemica) and in gastronomy (Boletus, Agaricus). For example, about 3 000 of large mushroom species occur in Middle Europe, 400 of which are poisonous (e.g. Amanita muscaria)  and 10 can even cause death (e.g. Amanita phalloides, Entoloma sinuatum).

Lacrymaria pyrotricha, edible - image is under CC BY-NC-SA of Natural History Museum of Denmark.

Mushrooms are world-wide distributed organisms inhibiting a wide range of mostly terrestrial habitats from deserts to tropical forests. In the past, they were classified among plants but are nowadays being considered a sister group to the animals. Mushrooms play an essential role within ecosystems as decompositors of organic matter and thus contribute largely to nutrient cycles. Mushrooms are also important symbionts of for example plants (e.g. trees) and algae (lichens) but they live as parasites or may be associated with animals (incl. humans).

Yellow Morel (Morchella esculenta), edible - image is under CC BY-NC-SA of Danish Mycological Society.