If you've ever found mold on your food, or had to deal with raking dead leaves, odds are you’re pretty familiar with rot. And if you remember some high school biology, you may remember a quick mention of how fungi are decomposers and break down dead organisms, turning their bodies into resources for other plants and animals to use. But how do fungi accomplish decomposition? Magic?? The answer’s even better.
When something decomposes, it doesn't instantly break down, and fungi aren't the only players in this process. Decomposition is actually a multi-step process and an important part of nutrient cycling. There are three main phases of decomposition, leaching, fragmentation and chemical alteration.
Leaching happens when rain water washes away big molecules in dead matter. This is generally followed by said dead thing being eaten by other organisms (usually scavengers and bugs). We call this step of decomposition fragmentation. It’s usually at this point that the organism is broken down into tiny pieces and is almost unrecognizable and it gets real interesting. The tiny pieces are then broken down on a chemical level by bacteria and- you guessed it- fungi. It is this part of decomposition that makes many crucial chemicals like carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen available for plants and other animals. Without decomposition, the amount of dead matter would quickly over populate the amount of living matter and useful nutrients would be forever inaccessible to others.
So when it’s all said and done rot is a really good thing. Kinda gross-but overall a critical part of the nutrient cycle.