The Role of Hyphae in Fungi

Fungi are complex organisms with incredibly hyper-connected functions and fascinating forms.  An essential and critical part of all fungi are the hyphae, or as it is collectively known, mycelium.

The role of hyphae cannot be understated; the fungi will not exist without it as it gives the mushroom life.

What Are Hyphae?

Fungi produce long, thin fibers from their base, which are individually called hypha (Hypha is singular; hyphae is plural). The hyphae filaments are lengthy and tubular, shaped much like a long and winding garden hose.

Each fungi issues thousands of hypha, much like a plant producing roots that stretch out into the ground. The strands of hypha are so thin and small that they often can’t be seen in their individual form. However, since a fungus produces so many, they can easily be seen in masses.

If you’ve read anything about mushrooms and fungi, you’ve probably seen the term mycelium quite frequently. Mycelium is simply an extensive collection of hyphae, a mass of hypha so large that it forms a visible clump.

The hyphae grow in such vast interconnected quantities that they bind together to form a complex structure. Mycelium masses often look like thick white spider webs or an array of dense white clumps or swathes of material around a mushroom.

The hyphae are so thickly combined, they form “ropes” of thousands of individual strands that work together as one structure.

Mycelium is often visible on the forest floor, on logs, and anywhere a mushroom develops. If you pull a mushroom from the soil, the white strands (“ropes” of hundreds of hyphae intertwined) can be quite visible in the ground.

The hyphae don’t just spread underground, though. If you turn over a leaf or look on the rotted wood near a growing mushroom, the hyphae are also there. Mostly, we only see the hyphae when it has grown to such a size that it is a mycelium mass. If you take apart the clusters of mycelium under a microscope, you can see the individual strands of the hypha.

What Is The Role Of Hyphae?

Hyphae play a vital role in the growth and expansion of fungi. Without hyphae, fungi wouldn’t be able to thrive and multiply. Each hypha is tasked with bringing in food for the collective fungi organism.

Hyphae travel long distances, often through long stretches of earth, plant matter, and even wood, to gather food for the fungus.

The hyphae absorb nutrients through their cell walls and transport them to other parts of the fungus body. These nutrients are used to build more complex structures, including forming the above-ground mushroom that we are most familiar with.

These nutrient-gathering filaments are not confined to only stretching through the soil like most other plants or trees. They will go through wood, spread across the forest floor, and in general, expand wherever is necessary to gather food. This is one of the main reasons fungi are so robust and resilient.

How many times have you seen a mushroom growing in a bizarre or unbelievable location, like between cracks in the sidewalk? This is the hyphae determinedly gathering nutrients where it’s at and triumphantly reproducing.

Hyphae and Reproduction

In addition to being food gatherers, hyphae cells contain the genetic material for the fungus, which means it is necessary for reproduction. During the growing season of the fungus, the hyphae mature until they can facilitate the reproduction process.

The mushroom that we see above ground is a fungal organism whose hyphae have succeeded in gathering enough nutrients to grow and produce a larger physical form. This visible physical structure then spends time developing further until it reaches full maturation and releases spores.

To complete the reproduction cycle, each spore that is released is capable of producing its own hyphae. This means wherever the spore lands, it can send out hypha “roots” and settle into its new location and continue the process of producing mycelium and the fruiting mushroom body.

There is much more involved in this process than just the new spore landing somewhere and sending out new hyphae; the spores need to meet up with other spores to complete the process.

However, each spore has the capability to do this, even if it never gets the opportunity. Like a salmon that releases thousands of tiny eggs into the river, knowing only a few will reach full maturity, so it is with fungi, as well. They must release millions (or billions) of spores for just one or two to meet the right environmental and biological conditions and reproduce.

Once the needs are met, though, the spore will send out hyphae to begin the nutrient-gathering process, establish a home base, and continue the growth process.

Do all fungi produce hyphae?

The majority of fungi produce hyphae, with the main exception being yeasts. Yeasts are single-cell fungal organisms that reproduce through “budding.” They do not produce hyphae.

Versatile Hyphae

Hyphae are incredibly versatile structures; they don’t just utilize one method for gathering nutrients. Like plant roots, they will stretch out in any and all directions possible in their search for food sources.

The network of hyphae strands in a mycelium mass is quite intricate, three-dimensional, and multi-faceted.

The goal of gathering nutrients means the mycelium mass must be flexible and adapt and change as its environment fluctuates. A robust mycelium network is necessary in case one food source is exhausted or disappears; the hyphae ensure that food is accessible in all directions and will keep stretching out as long as needed to ensure this.

For example, a hyphae mycelium mass covering a leaf will, over time, take all the nutrients out of the leaf; it is not an inexhaustible food source. The hyphae must be prepared for this in advance and spread out past the leaf to other sources so it will have a continuous nutrient supply without interruption.

In some cases, a fungus’ mycelium mass isn’t that developed because it has easily accessible food sources. The robustness and hardiness of the mycelium depend on the environment; a rich forest floor with trees and plants nearby means less work for most fungi.

A harsher locale requires the fungi to create even more intricate and vast mycelium networks to ensure the fungus will survive.

The largest living organism in the world is a massive Armillaria fungus in Malheur National Forest, Oregon. This fungus, commonly referred to as the Humongous Fungus, covers 2385 acres of the park. However, the majority of it can’t be seen except with a bit of investigation.

The Humongous Fungus consists of vast mycelial mats (billions of hyphae) under the soil or underneath tree bark. If you visit, you won’t see the physical mushrooms unless you happen to go during the fruiting season.

The mycelial mats are so dense and thick that they are often compared to latex paint. It is incredible to think that this enormous organism started with a single hyphae and, left undisturbed, spread to thousand of acres.

There are no set boundaries as to how far a mycelium mass will spread or how it will go about creating its network of hyphae strands. Everything depends on the hyper-local circumstances, which is one of the reasons studying fungi is so fascinating.

The world of fungi is ever-changing, wildly adaptable, often wonderfully surprising.


Lumen Learning; Boundless Biology. Characteristics of Fungi.

Georgia Tech: Biological Sciences. Organismal Biology; Fungi.