A hypha forms the fundamental structural unit of a fungus. Hyphae are thin, threadlike tubes that grow and elongate and spread over particular substrates. When these hyphae reach a food source, they release digestive enzymes to break down the matter into smaller molecules that can pass through the cell wall. As the hyphae spread, they form a mass called a mycelium. One of the largest mycelia in the world belongs to the Armillaria ostoyae found in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon, United States. Also known as the “humungous fungus”, this creature covers an area of almost 2500 acres and is known as the largest living organism on the planet. Unlike a plant, a fungus cannot produce its own food and must obtain its nutrition from other sources. Many fungi form relationships with plant roots; this is called a mycorrhizal relationship. The fungus supplies the plant with needed nutrients and water. The plant, in turn, supplies the fungus with sugars that the plant has produced by photosynthesis. This is why many fungi are found in the forest and, if one looks closer, similar types are fungi are found in association with similar types of trees.
Much of a fungus’ activity happens below ground, however when we take a stroll in the forest or a run in the park, we see what are known to many as mushrooms, which also serve an important purpose. Just like an apple is the fruiting body of an apply tree, a mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungus. When conditions such as nutrition and moisture are favorable, the mycelium produces these fruiting bodies with an intent of dispersing spores (essentially the “seeds” of the fungus).