Molds are a large and taxonomically diverse number of fungal species in which the growth of hyphae results in discoloration and a fuzzy appearance, especially on food. The network of these tubular branching hyphae, called a mycelium, is considered a single organism. The hyphae are generally transparent, so the mycelium appears like very fine, fluffy white threads over the surface. Cross-walls (septa) may delimit connected compartments along the hyphae, each containing one or multiple, genetically identical nuclei. The dusty texture of many molds is caused by profuse production of asexual spores (conidia) formed by differentiation at the ends of hyphae. The mode of formation and shape of these spores is traditionally used to classify molds. Many of these spores are colored, making the fungus much more obvious to the human eye at this stage in its life-cycle.
Molds are considered to be microbes and do not form a specific taxonomic or phylogenetic grouping, but can be found in the divisions Zygomycota and Ascomycota. In the past, most molds were classified within the Deuteromycota.
Molds cause biodegradation of natural materials, which can be unwanted when it becomes food spoilage or damage to property. They also play important roles in biotechnology and food science in the production of various foods, beverages, antibiotics, pharmaceuticals and enzymes. Some diseases of animals and humans can be caused by certain molds: disease may result from allergic sensitivity to mold spores, from growth of pathogenic molds within the body, or from the effects of ingested or inhaled toxic compounds (mycotoxins) produced by molds.
There are thousands of known species of molds, which have diverse life-styles including saprotrophs, mesophiles, psychrophiles and thermophiles and a very few opportunistic pathogens of humans. They all require moisture for growth and some live in aquatic environments. Like all fungi, molds derive energy not through photosynthesis but from the organic matter on which they live, utilising heterotrophy. Typically, molds secrete hydrolytic enzymes, mainly from the hyphal tips. These enzymes degrade complex biopolymers such as starch, cellulose and lignin into simpler substances which can be absorbed by the hyphae. In this way molds play a major role in causing decomposition of organic material, enabling the recycling of nutrients throughout ecosystems. Many molds also synthesise mycotoxins and siderophores which, together with lytic enzymes, inhibit the growth of competing microorganisms. Molds can also grow on stored food for animals and humans, making the food unpalatable or toxic and are thus a major source of food losses and illness. Many strategies for food preservation (salting, pickling, jams, bottling, freezing, drying) are to prevent or slow mold growth as well as growth of other microbes.
Molds reproduce by producing large numbers of small spores, which may contain a single nucleus or be multinucleate. Mold spores can be asexual (the products of mitosis) or sexual (the products of meiosis); many species can produce both types. Some molds produce small, hydrophobic spores that are adapted for wind dispersal and may remain airborne for long periods; in some the cell walls are darkly pigmented, providing resistance to damage by ultraviolet radiation. Other mold spores have slimy sheaths and are more suited to water dispersal. Mold spores are often spherical or ovoid single cells, but can be multicellular and variously shaped. Spores may cling to clothing or fur; some are able to survive extremes of temperature and pressure.