, Volume 72, Issue 3, pp 255-268
Date: 09 Mar 2010

Diversity and functions of microscopic fungi: a missing component in pelagic food webs

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Fungi are a highly complex group of organisms of the kingdom Eumycota (i.e. the true-fungi) and other fungus-like organisms traditionally studied by mycologists, such as slime molds (Myxomycota) and oomycota (Straminopiles or Heterokonts). They constitute a significant proportion of the as yet undiscovered biota that is crucial in ecological processes and human well-being, through at least three main trophic modes: saprophytism, parasitism, or symbiosis. In addition to direct benefit (sources of antibiotics) or adverse effects (agents of disease), fungi can impact many environmental processes, particularly those associated with the decomposition of organic matter. They are present in almost all regions and climates, even under extreme conditions. However, studies have focussed mostly on economically interesting species, and knowledge of their diversity and functions is mainly restricted to soil, rhizosphere, mangrove, and lotic ecosystems. In this study, we review the diversity and potential functions of microscopic fungi in aquatic ecosystems, with focus on the pelagic environments where they often are regarded as allochthonous material, of low ecological significance for food-web processes. Recent environmental 18S rDNA surveys of microbial eukaryotes have (1) unveiled a large reservoir of unexpected fungal diversity in pelagic systems, (2) emphasized their ecological potentials for ecosystem functioning, and (3) opened new perspectives in the context of food-web dynamics. In spite of persisting methodological difficulties, we conclude that a better documentation of the diversity and quantitative and functional importance of fungi will improve our understanding of pelagic processes and biogeochemical cycling.