What is Mycology?

Ken Black

Mycology is the study, or the branch of botany, that focuses on fungi. This field of study could be broken down into a number of other areas such as medical or clinical mycology, mold mycology, and others. The purpose of the study is to understand more about the characteristics and growth patterns of fungi, and how they may affect humans either for the good or the bad. Some may help people, but others can be extremely harmful.

Mycology made it possible to reduce the cost of a penicillin treatment.
Mycology made it possible to reduce the cost of a penicillin treatment.

In essence, mycology is the root of many different types of studies, including the study of beer, wine, cheeses, medicine, and a number of other things. Without a firm grasp into what fungi are, understanding how best to use it when making these products is difficult. Fungi are essential in making all of these things.

A mycologist might study how to prevent yeast infections.
A mycologist might study how to prevent yeast infections.

This branch of science has identified as many as approximately 200,000 species of fungi, though not all are subject to extensive study, and less than 1 percent are known to cause problems for humans. Those that do are sometimes simple nuisances, such as the fungus responsible for athlete's foot (Tinea pedis). Others may cause more serious problems, such as tumors, that require immediate medical attention. Even seemingly harmless fungi could, if left untreated, cause problems that lead to other types of infection. Therefore, medical mycology studies these fungi and attempts to discover better treatment methods.

Medical mycology also may seek to determine what types of fungi may be beneficial for human use, either as a food source or as a source of medicine. For example, even early humans understood the importance of studying some types of fungi, and learned early on that some have desirable traits, such as yeast, which is used in breads. Yeast is also used as an antibiotic drug for those suffering various infections. Mycology made it possible to take the cost of penicillin from $20 US Dollars (USD) a dose back in 1943, down to $.50 USD just a few years later by increasing yields of the mold. This helped make the medicine affordable for individuals all over the world.

In some cases, where fungus is thought to be the source of a health problem in humans or animals, mycologists could help determine the source of the contamination. In such cases, the mycologist looks for a fungus and then tries to determine the species. Depending on what is known about the fungus, this may also help isolate the source, which is important for eliminating the problem. This has application not only inside of people's homes, but also in protecting entire food systems.

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