August 15 – Happy Birthday, Elias Fries

Posted on August 15, 2014

Today's birthday—born in 1794—became a mycologist.

Swedish scientist Elias Fries learned all about flowering plants from his father, and after going to university, he became a professor of botany, which is the study of plants.

But his knowledge of plants isn't what Fries is known for.

Fries became known for his classification system for mushrooms and other fungi. He studied spore color and the structures of fungal fruiting bodies, which could be smooth, folded, or covered with tubes or “teeth.”

Back when Fries was arranging his mushroom taxonomies, they were classified as a kind of plant. After all, mushrooms often grow out of soil, generally stay put in one place, and have rigid cell walls. 

But now mushrooms and other fungi have their own kingdom, alongside the animal and plant kingdoms (and other kingdoms). 

A mycologist is a scientist who specializes in fungi.

What makes mushrooms fungi instead of plants?

Plants have the ability to make food. Generally, plants use water and minerals absorbed from the soil, through their roots, and carbon dioxide absorbed from the air, through tiny pores in their leaves, and the energy of sunlight – and from these inorganic materials plus energy, they make sugars and starches!

This process is called photosynthesis (photo means “light,” and synthesis means “to make”).

Mushrooms, yeast, and molds are all incapable of making their own food. Instead, they break down organic matter; many fungi are an important part of the decomposition of dead organisms.

Lichen-encrusted rocks
(By the way, Fries also studied and classified various lichens, which are fungi that have algae cells that can make food out of sunlight. In other words, lichens are pretty much part-fungi, part-plant.)

Learn about mushrooms and how they reproduce.

Would it surprise you to learn
that some fungi are called
"shelf fungi"?

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