A gram of garden soil can contain around one million fungi, such as yeasts and moulds. Fungi have no chlorophyll, and are not able to photosynthesise; besides, they cannot use atmospheric carbon dioxide as a source of carbon, therefore they are chemo-heterotrophic, meaning that, like animals, they require a chemical source of energy rather than being able to use light as an energy source, as well as organic substrates to get carbon for growth and development.
Many fungi are parasitic, often causing disease to their living host plant, although some have beneficial relationships with living plants, as illustrated below. In terms of soil and humus creation, the most important fungi tend to be saprotrophic; that is, they live on dead or decaying organic matter, thus breaking it down and converting it to forms that are available to the higher plants. A succession of fungi species will colonise the dead matter, beginning with those that use sugars and starches, which are succeeded by those that are able to break down cellulose and lignins.
Fungi spread underground by sending long thin threads known as mycelium throughout the soil; these threads can be observed throughout many soils and compost heaps. From the mycelia the fungi is able to throw up its fruiting bodies, the visible part above the soil (e.g., mushrooms, toadstools, and puffballs), which may contain millions of spores. When the fruiting body bursts, these spores are dispersed through the air to settle in fresh environments, and are able to lie dormant for up to years until the right conditions for their activation arise or the right food is made available.
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