The Science Behind Fungal Nutrition: Auto vs. Heterotrophic Strategies

The Science Behind Fungal Nutrition: Auto vs. Heterotrophic Strategies


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  • Source: Microbioz India

  • Date: 05 Dec,2023

Because they are heterotrophic, fungi can only metabolize and feed on carbon that comes from other living things. Due to their unique evolutionary history, fungi may grow on a wide range of organic substrates, including simple substances like nitrate, ammonia, acetate, or ethanol.

Autotrophic Fungi:


  1. Autotrophic fungi can make their own organic compounds from inorganic substances.
  2. They frequently have mutualistic associations with photosynthesizing organisms such as algae or cyanobacteria.

Key Points:

  1. Mycorrhizal Associations: Here, some autotrophic fungi establish mycorrhizal associations with plant roots to facilitate nutrient exchange. The plant provides sugars to the fungus, whereas the plant benefits from increased nutrient uptake.
  2. Lichen Formation: In this case, lichen is a mutual association between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria where the fungus derives its organic materials by use of photosynthesis performed by the photobiont (algae or cyanobacteria).
  3. Chemoautotrophy: Some fungi can obtain energy through chemoautotrophy using inorganic compounds that is used in less common among bacteria.

Heterotrophic Fungi:


  1. Heterotrophic fungi obtain their nutrition from external organic sources and derive carbon and energy from pre-formed organic compounds.
  2. They play important roles in decomposition and recycling of nutrients in ecosystems.

Key Points:

  1. Saprophytic Nutrition: Many Fungi are saprophytic that derive their nutrients from dead organic matter. They release enzymes which break down complex organic molecules into simpler ones that can be absorbed by the fungi.
  2. Parasitic Lifestyle: Some Fungi lives as parasites extracting nutrients from living organisms. For instance, plant pathogens may drain nutrients off hosts hence they may suffer diseases such as crop failures.
  3. Mycorrhizal Associations (again): Although regarded as autotrophs, some mycorrhizal fungi are actually heterotrophs. This implies that they obtain carbon for growth from the attached plants at an exchange for increased nutrient absorption.
  4. Endophytic Lifestyle: In addition, some fungi live in plant tissues without causing harm and getting nutrients from the host plant. This is an endophytic relationship that could be mutualistic.

Common Features:

  1. Extracellular Digestion: Both Autotrophic and heterotrophic fungi carryout extracellular digestion where they secrete enzymes that break complex organic compounds into smaller molecules which are then absorbed.
  2. Hyphal Structure: Fungi usually have a filamentous structure called hyphae, which provides them with a large surface area for nutrient absorption.

Therefore, understanding fungal nutritional strategies is not only important from an ecological standpoint but also has implications in agriculture, biotechnology and medicine. The myriad of roles played by fungi in relation to nutrient cycling and their interaction with other organisms shows their importance in different ecosystems.


Are fungi auto or heterotrophic?

Since all fungi are heterotrophic, they obtain their energy from other living things. Similar to vertebrates, fungi take energy from live or dead organisms and store it in the bonds of organic substances like sugar and protein.

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