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Fungus growing on and extracting nutrients from a branch bark

How Do Fungi Get Their Nutrients?

Fungi are fantastic nutrient recyclers! There are over 140,000 known species of fungi. It is suspected that there are millions more still to be discovered. Since there are so many species of fungi, how do fungi get their nutrients?

Not only are fungi delicious on pizza or in an omelet, but they can also be used in baking, winemaking, cheese production, and the production of antibiotics.

Fungi can grow on foods (like fruits) and other materials/items. Fungi can also be parasitic and can cause diseases in plants and humans.

Let’s learn about the types of fungi and how they get their nutrition.

What Are Fungi?

Fungi are heterotrophic microbes that play an essential role in ecosystems. Although there are some similarities, fungi are different from plants and animals. Like animals, fungi are heterotrophs and rely on other sources for their nutrients.

Similar to plant cells fungi contain a cell wall. Fungi are also immobile and grow on the substance they use for nutrition. Years ago scientists classified fungi as plants, but after more research into their structure and nutrition, they are in their own category.

While plants store their food as starch, fungi typically store their food as oil or glycogen.

Fungi do not have chlorophyll (the photosynthetic pigment), so they have to obtain their energy from breaking down organic material. They are composed of long slender filaments called hyphae which play a big role in nutrient absorption. Like plants, fungi also have a cell wall but it is composed of chitin.

Types of Fungi

Fungi can be saprotrophic, parasitic, or symbionts. Saprotrophic fungi get their energy from dead organic matter like dead plants, dead animals, or branches. An example of common saprotrophic fungi is rhizopus.

Parasitic fungi get their energy from living organisms. These fungi use plants or humans as a host and usually cause disease. Energy and nutrients are obtained from the host. An example of parasitic fungi is haustoria which invade roots and absorb nutrients meant for the plant.

Some fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with other organisms. One example is the symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. Have you ever gone for a walk in the park and seen lichen (Figure 1: Lichen) growing on trees? Lichen is a symbiotic relationship between algae (cyanobacteria or green algae) and fungi.

The fungi give the algae somewhere to live and the algae provide the fungi with a carbon source from the process of photosynthesis.

Lichen is a type of fungs that extracts nutrients from treebark among other sources
Figure 1: Lichen is an example of a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi.

Fungi Nutrient Absorption

Like plants and animals, fungi need a variety of both organic and inorganic nutrients. Hydrogen and oxygen are important macronutrients that fungi obtain from a water supply.

Fungi also need large amounts of nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, and phosphorus. Fungi need smaller amounts of zinc, manganese, copper, and iron. Fungi need these macro-and micronutrients for growth and development.

Fungi thrive in conditions with high amounts of carbohydrates, which is why you will often see fungi growing on your fruit and vegetables in your refrigerator. Fungi will invade the soft parts of fruits that are already going bad. Fungi can readily take in glucose and fructose. They use these carbohydrates as their carbon source.

Some fungi also use proteins as their source of energy. In addition to these macro-and micronutrients, fungi need complex molecules called growth factors and vitamins.

Fungi can also invade broken parts of plants (ie: stems) or stomata (open pores on the underside of leaves that specialize in gas exchange).

Most fungi are saprotrophs and therefore get their nutrition from the decomposition of organic matter. Unlike some bacteria, fungi thrive in aerobic environments, which means they need oxygen to perform metabolic processes.

Fungi are made up of hyphae. Hyphae grow and branch out into a big tangled mass called a mycelium.

Fungal Hyphae extending through media
Figure 2: This image shows fungal hyphae. Fungal hyphae form and branch out into a tangled mass called a mycelium. This is how the fungi absorb their nutrients.

Saprotrophic fungi secrete digestive enzymes onto the organic matter they are going to use for nutrients. These enzymes break down the energy source. The fungi can then absorb nutrients (now in liquid form) through the hyphae walls.

Fungi absorb the liquid nutrients using various methods of cell transport. Nutrients are absorbed into the fungal hyphae (Figure 2). Fungi can also use active transport methods like vesicle transport (endocytosis and exocytosis) to take in large molecules like carbohydrates.

Vesicle transport involves the invagination of the cell membrane to create a vesicle around the substance being absorbed into the cell. This type of transport involves the use of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the energy currency in cells.

Fungi can also use the process of diffusion, a form of passive transport, to absorb nutrients into the cell without the use of energy.

Fungi are nutrient recyclers. In soil these microbes aid in the decomposition of organic matter which helps to recycle the nutrients in the ecosystem. They are key players in food webs and food chains.

Fungi in Your Hydroponic System

Microbes are an important part of your hydroponic system. Fungi are nutrient recyclers that decompose organic matter and make materials readily available to plants.

Green House Feeding Bio Line is an organic, non-GMO line of nutrients that will help promote microbial presence in your hydroponic system. The addition of these natural minerals will help introduce microbes that aid in the decomposition of organic matter. This process will release vital nutrients into the medium so that plants can easily absorb them.


Fungi are heterotrophic microbes that obtain their energy from dead organic matter or living hosts. Fungi share similarities with plants and animals but are classified separately. Adding microbes to your hydroponic system can improve overall plant health. Saprotrophic fungi are decomposers that recycle nutrients, making them more readily available for plants.


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Nutrient Uptake – Fungi

Types of Fungi

Fungi Nutrition

By Talissa Nahass

Talissa is a secondary science educator who loves teaching biology and environmental science. She has her B.S. in Biology/ Secondary Education and her M.A. in Educational Leadership. In her spare time, she enjoys doing science research and writing. She has a passion for hiking, running, and being outdoors. Every spring she grows various fruits and vegetables in her garden.

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