Fungi have well-defined characteristics that set them apart from other organisms. Most multicellular fungal bodies, commonly called molds, are made up of filaments called hyphae. Hyphae can form a tangled network called a mycelium and form the thallus (body) of fleshy fungi. Hyphae that have walls between the cells are called septate hyphae; hyphae that lack walls and cell membranes between the cells are called nonseptate or coenocytic hyphae).
In contrast to molds, yeasts are unicellular fungi. The budding yeasts reproduce asexually by budding off a smaller daughter cell; the resulting cells may sometimes stick together as a short chain or pseudohypha. Candida albicans is a common yeast that forms pseudohyphae; it is associated with various infections in humans, including vaginal yeast infections, oral thrush, and candidiasis of the skin.
Some fungi are dimorphic, having more than one appearance during their life cycle. These dimorphic fungi may be able to appear as yeasts or molds, which can be important for infectivity. They are capable of changing their appearance in response to environmental changes such as nutrient availability or fluctuations in temperature, growing as a mold, for example, at 25 °C (77 °F), and as yeast cells at 37 °C (98.6 °F). This ability helps dimorphic fungi to survive in diverse environments. Histoplasma capsulatum, the pathogen that causes histoplasmosis, a lung infection, is an example of a dimorphic fungus.
There are notable unique features in fungal cell walls and membranes. Fungal cell walls contain chitin, as opposed to the cellulose found in the cell walls of plants and many protists. Additionally, whereas animals have cholesterol in their cell membranes, fungal cell membranes have different sterols called ergosterols. Ergosterols are often exploited as targets for antifungal drugs.
Fungal life cycles are unique and complex. Fungi reproduce sexually either through cross- or self-fertilization. Haploid fungi form hyphae that have gametes at the tips. Two different mating types (represented as “+ type” and “– type”) are involved. The cytoplasms of the + and – type gametes fuse (in an event called plasmogamy), producing a cell with two distinct nuclei (a dikaryotic cell). Later, the nuclei fuse (in an event called karyogamy) to create a diploid zygote. The zygote undergoes meiosis to form spores that germinate to start the haploid stage, which eventually creates more haploid mycelia. Depending on the taxonomic group, these sexually produced spores are known as zygospores (in Zygomycota), ascospores (in Ascomycota), or basidiospores (in Basidiomycota).
Fungi may also exhibit asexual reproduction by mitosis, mitosis with budding, fragmentation of hyphae, and formation of asexual spores by mitosis. These spores are specialized cells that, depending on the organism, may have unique characteristics for survival, reproduction, and dispersal. Fungi exhibit several types of asexual spores and these can be important in classification.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology