Leon M. Lederman Science Education Center
Fermilab Flora and Fauna Virtual Exhibit


Prairie Resources - Exhibit Home

There is a unique group of organisms found from the North Pole to Antarctica and everywhere in between, including Fermilab. These organisms lack chlorophyll and cannot make their own food. They are the fungi. Fungi has its own kingdom and are made up of mushrooms, molds, mildews, yeasts, and lichens. More than 110,000 species are known, and mycologists (fungi experts) describe another thousand each year. Fermilab has several species of fungi in the forest, prairie and water.

THE BODY OF THE FUNGUS. Fungi can be found in many different shapes, sizes, and colors, however, they all have the same basic structure. Their bodies are hidden below ground and are made up of a collection of microscopic tube-like threads called hyphae. The hyphae form a fine web of interweaving threads called mycelium which look like delicate white cobwebs. The mycelium is the part of the plant that takes in nourishment and grows larger. It can be compared to the roots, stems, and leaves of green plants. Depending on the type of fungus, the mycelium can live on various substrates: in the ground or on dead or living organic matter.

Once the mycelium has grown to a certain point, it produces a fruiting body which emerges above the ground, bark or other substrate. The fruiting body is made up of densely packed hyphae. Its function is to produce spores, which are reproductive cells. When the environmental conditions are favorable, the spores will germinate and produce new fungi.

FOOD AND FEEDING.Fungi need to live very close to their food supply and ingest their nutrients by absorption. In this mode of nutrition, hyphae secrete acids and enzymes outside of the body which digests the food so it can be absorbed and used.

Fungi are specialized as saprophytes, parasites, or in a mutualistic association with another organism. Saprophytes absorb nutrients from dead leaves, on rotting wood, or in dung or compost heaps. Saprophytes (together with bacteria) are the decomposers which form humus, a substance that improves the texture of the soil and helps to make it rich and fertile. Parasitic fungi absorb nutrients from the body fluids of living organisms. Most of these cause harm to the plant or animal they feed on. Mutualistic fungi absorbs nutrients from the organism, but the fungi repays it by aiding in the uptake of minerals from the solid.

SPORE PRINTS.Mushrooms have one major feature in common: they produce spores on their fruiting bodies. Because of this characteristic, they can be studied by means of spore prints. Place a mature mushroom cap on a piece of black or colored paper. Cover the cap with a glass dish. After three or four hours, carefully remove the glass and cap to reveal a spore print. Scientists can identify many kinds of mushrooms by looking at the print

Fermilab's Interesting Fungi


Johnson, Sylvia A., Mushrooms, Lerner Publications Company, Minneapolis, MN, 1982.
Lincoff, Gary H., National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, A Chanticleer Press Edition, New York, NY, 1981.
Pacioni, Giovanni, Simon & Schuster's Guide to Mushrooms, Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York, NY, 1981.
Tesar, Jenny, Our Living World - Fungi, A Blackbirch Press Book, Woodbridge, CN, 1994.