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Fungi and bacteria

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Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi and produce spores to reproduce. Image: Bernard Spragg.

Even though we can’t always see fungi and bacteria they are essential to life on Earth.

Fungi and bacteria have important jobs. Some types of fungi and bacteria can break down dead plants and return nutrients to the soil. Other types can fix nitrogen in the soil and help plants get nutrients from the soil.

Some groups of fungi and bacteria cause diseases in plants and animals.

There are about 6,500 named species of fungi in Aotearoa. Scientists think there are at least another 15,000 species yet to be discovered. About one-third of the known species of fungi in Aotearoa have been brought here by people.

About half of the species of fungi in Aotearoa are endemic. Some, like the pukatea bracket fungus, are endangered.

What are fungi?

Fungi are not plants or animals. They form a separate kingdom. This kingdom includes:

  • mushrooms
  • toadstools
  • puffballs
  • yeast
  • bread mould
  • skin infections.

Fungi are mainly made of chitin, which also forms the shells of insects.

Where do fungi live?

Fungi live in most places. Many live underground and some live on dead wood. Other types grow on food or in animals, including people.

How do fungi live?

Unlike plants, fungi can't make their own food. They get food by breaking down things such as plant roots, leaves and wood. Most plants have fungi growing on their roots. Fungi help the plant roots take up water and nutrients, while the fungi get food.

This is a basket fungus which is endemic to New Zealand. Image Bernard Spragg.


Mushrooms and puffballs are the fruiting bodies of fungi. They make thousands of tiny spores that are spread by wind, raindrops or animals. When a spore lands, it may grow to form a new fungus.

Useful and harmful fungi

Many fungi are important because they break down dead material.

Māori used the pukurau puffball as a painkiller, and for burns. They used another species as a fire lighter. You can eat some mushrooms – but others can kill you.


You need a microscope to see bacteria. Bacteria are made up of a single cell. They are believed to be one of the first types of life to exist on Earth.

Bacteria have different shapes including spheres, rods, and spirals.

This is a scanning electron micrograph of a rod shaped bacteria. Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH.

Bacteria live in many different habitats. Some bacteria can live where no other life can exist. Some bacteria live in areas with very high and very low temperatures. Other bacteria can live in very acidic conditions. Bacteria are everywhere. There are about 40 million bacteria in a single gram of soil.

Essential bacteria

Without some bacteria, life on earth would be very different:

  • Without bacteria, the earth would have no soil in which to grow plants.
  • Bacteria living in the gut can help animals break down food.
  • Some bacteria live on the roots of some plants. For example, on peas, beans, and clover. These bacteria can ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air into a form that can be used by the plant.

People can use bacteria to create food such as cheese, yoghurt, pickles, soy sauce and vinegar. We are also able to use bacteria to break down our sewage and to clean up oil spills. Only a small handful of bacteria can cause disease.

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