Fungi: A Diverse and Unique Kingdom
Fungi is the name of the kingdom which includes a number of diverse and unique eukaryotic organisms such as mushrooms, molds and yeasts. Eukaryotic organisms are those distinguished by their complex cellular structures which are always enclosed by membranes. Oddly enough, fungi are separate and distinct from animals, plants and even bacteria. They represent a uniqueness entirely unto themselves.
Defining Characteristics of Fungi
All fungal cells have chitinous cell walls, whereas the cell walls of plant cells contain cellulose. Fungi have promulgated all throughout the world and are often poorly understood given their strange behaviors, such as fruiting within dense and wet soil, sprouting from feces or dead animal flesh, or even, in the case of yeasts, producing the essential chemical reactions necessary to produce various alcohols.
Mushrooms in Lore and Modern Usage
The Irish thought mushrooms to be the umbrellas for leprachauns, and the English thought that harvesting mushrooms during a full moon would render them safely edible. Egyptians considered the toadstools to be the sons of gods who were sent earth-ward via lightning bolts. From time immemorial, mushrooms have served as catalysts and sacraments for holy rituals. Psychadelic mushrooms have served as shamans' doorways into the spirit realm. Amanita Muscaria, a well known breed of psychadelic mushroom was used by holy men and commoners alike in Sibera, and often produced vision quests and feelings of flight, compounded by the use of long sleds used to journey across vast, snowy expanses.
The term "entheogen" which means generating god within in ancient Greek, has widely been applied to psychadelic mushrooms to describe their divinely transporting and inspiring effects on persons taking them within the context of psychic exploration.
The late modern philosopher and theologian Terrence McKenna believed psychadelic mushrooms and their availability to the nomadic apemen tribes roaming the plains of Africa could explain the still mysterious evolutionary period during which homo-sapien's ancestors' brains developed advanced linguistic and rational capacities at a rate exponentially faster than any previous species' evolutionary trend.
Commercial Applications of Fungi
Today, Fungi of all kinds are dearly valued worldwide as common foods, gourmet delicacies, medicines, brewing catalysts, and more. Gourmands have payed $4000 per pound of Italian white truffle, and specially trained pigs are used in France to sniff out the prized black truffle of the forested PÃ©rigord region where the precious fungus grows only in the presence of Oak trees. Fungi are responsible for the rising of bread loaves and fungal mycelium lend blue and Roquefort cheeses their distinct appearances and tastes. Fungi are even responsible for the traditional asian sauce known as shoyu, as well as tempeh and miso!
Health Benefits of Mushrooms
Mushrooms are extensively used in cooking, and have numerous health benefits such as low sodium and high fiber. Mushrooms are also packed with important nutrients like potassium. In fact, a portabella mushroom contains more potassium than a banana! In addition, mushrooms contain the antioxidant selenium and the vitamin niacin which is essential to healthy nerve function. White button mushrooms, a very commonly eaten food mushroom found in most supermarkets, has been found to reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancer when eaten semi-regularly.
Fungi in Extreme Environments
Fungi are also known by mycologists for their uncanny ability to survive and thrive in extremely hostile environments. Fungi can live in acidic waters, low-pressure regions such as the upper atmosphere, and even artic ice. Hot springs, salt deposits and even the brink of outer space cannot offer challenges great enough to prevent fungi from making them their homes.