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Meet the real fungi…

Fungi: A Very Short Introduction, by Nicholas P. Money, 2016. Oxford University Press.

As much as I would like to think that plants are the most important organisms on planet Earth, even I have to admit that fungi are probably – probably… – more important. After all, without their decomposing activities, nutrients wouldn’t get recycled and the cycle of life wouldn’t happen and we’d all be dead*. Now, there’s an eye-catching, sensationalist start to a book review – well, to any blog item really. And, it’s true. So, for those who don’t know that much about those chitin-walled, non-self-feeding, plant-wannabies, then Oxford University Press (OUP) has just the book for you: Nicholas Money’s A Very Short Introduction to Fungi [hereinafter referred to as Very Short Fungi]**.


Very Short Fungi is relatively short (as befits the series it’s a part of!) – 137 pages (each c. 17 x 11 cm), it’s illustrated (in black-and-white), has 6.33 pages of Index, and 2 pages of Further Reading, etc. The first three chapters set the scene for general fungal biology – e.g. tackling – and answering – the important question “What is a fungus?”, dealing with fungal diversity, and fungal genetics and life cycles. The next four chapters get to the heart of why fungi are important in considering the various ways in which fungi interact with other life forms – fungal mutualisms (not just mycorrhiza), fungi as plant parasites (not only important as turning-points in world history, but a major issue re future food security for all), fungi and animal health and disease (much more than athlete’s foot and ringworm), and fungi and decomposition (where this blog item started). The final chapter looks at edible mushrooms and fungal biotechnology – a topic that’s much more than truffles, quorn and penicillin derived from moulds mid-20th century. All of which underlines the continued – and future – importance of the mycological marvels, to people, plants and the planet.

Every chapter is written in Money’s characteristic style, which is both witty and highly readable. Very Short Fungi is ideal; not only for those who know little about this amazing group of organisms – which have a whole Kingdom of life to themselves, but also for those who are supposed to know something about them so they can teach the next generation of biologically-minded undergraduates. There are plenty of great titbits seemingly carelessly strewn throughout the text that can – should! – be slipped into one’s lectures to give the students those ‘wow!’ or ‘well, that’s pretty amazing’ moments. When it comes to writing about fungi, Nik Money truly is the ultimate … fun … guide!

Get hold of a copy of A Very Short Introduction to Fungi and prepare to be enlightened, and entertained. And, if you like that, there are several other fungus books from the pen of Nicholas Money to explore****. Don’t have time for another book? The publisher’s blog site contains some interesting and short fungal items linked to Nik’s books. The author’s own Pastures New blog site can extend your myco-knowledge and fungal appreciation further. And, if you don’t think you have time to read Very Short Fungi, here are 10 reasons that might change your mind. Enjoy!


* And, should anybody still doubt the fundamental, life-giving role performed by fungi, then a timely article by Benjamin Mills et al. should help. Entitled “Nutrient acquisition by symbiotic fungi governs Palaeozoic climate transition” (Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 373: 20160503, 2017; http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2016.0503) it emphasises the important part that those mycobes*** played in oxygenating the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago.

** It’s also worth saying a little about OUP’s ‘Very Short Introduction’ series of titles. I own several and can recommend them as ideal starting points for getting up to some sort of speed on an unfamiliar topic. It won’t necessarily make you an expert on that subject, but it will give you a firm basis to sound at least a little bit knowledgeable. And it may even pique your interest so that you delve further into the subject with more substantial in-depth texts. FYI, Short Fungi is number 455 in this ever-expanding series (which currently has almost 600 titles…).

*** A new word(?) that emphasises the fungal members of the biologically diverse group known as microbes, which includes fungi, algae, bacteria, archaea, and even viruses

**** For those who can’t wait to get their hands on even more mycological Money, then due to be published shortly is his take on the role played by yeast in shaping civilisation.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that international plant science journal for almost 10 years. As a freelance plant science communicator I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Plant Cuttings [https://plantcuttings.uk] (and formerly at Botany One [https://botany.one/author/nigelchaffey/]). In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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