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Considering that they are a fungus, mushrooms are pretty tasty when fried in butter with garlic.

Not all fungi are good to eat, some are even poisonous while others will make people happy or goofy. Other fungi are coated in slime, or glow in the dark. One is responsible for creating penicillin, a drug that helps fight infections.

Scientists know of about 44,400 fungi that live just in North America. But they also figure that there are many more they don’t know about.

"Although an estimated 1.5-5.1 million species of fungi are believed to exist on Earth, only about 120,000 have been discovered and described," said Illinois Natural History Survey mycologist Andrew Miller. A mycologist is someone who studies fungi. Miller helped write the list of North American fungi.

About 20,000 of the fungi on the list are mushrooms; the rest are hard to see because they are so small. They are called "microfungi," These include molds, mildews and rusts, along with species that help break down plants and animals that die.

Microfungi also include yeasts that help bakers make bread and brewers to craft beer. Some cause infections like athlete's foot.

Bigger fungi are called macrofungi.

"One of the largest living organisms on the planet is a honey mushroom, Armillaria solidipes," Miller said. "It occurs in the Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon, where it grows — mostly hidden — underground. It stretches 3.5 miles across, covers an area larger than 1,665 football fields and is believed to be more than 2,400 years old."

Another fungus, the giant puffball, Calvatia gigantea, may contain as many as 7 trillion spores, Miller said. If every one of those spores — which are like seeds — grew into a puffball, the puffballs produced would weigh more than the Earth, he added.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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