Mushrooms. You may prefer them sauteed in a little butter and garlic. They do so much more than top a salad or sirloin, however. They play in an important role in the production of food.

For thousands of years, humans have both eaten and used mushrooms to modify their food. One of the first uses of mushrooms, in the form of yeast, was to ferment fruit beverages in order to preserve them, and to make bread rise so that it is airy and light. Fungi are also used to preserve salami and to give flavor to cheese. Indeed, both that outer, white coating on Brie cheese, and the blue veins in blue cheese are actually fungi.

Barry Pryor, a professor in the University of Arizona School of Plant Sciences, says mushrooms are also crucial to the environment because they can break down fibrous materials, such as wood waste.

Prior was recently awarded a grant to study mushrooms, and their effectiveness at breaking down both landscape and consumer wastes, to include items like pizza boxes.

"We hope to use mushrooms to recycle these consumer wastes, grow a gourmet product - a delicious, nutritious gourmet product - and then these products will be able to move into the composting cycle and then be returned to our gardens as fertilizer," Prior says.

He is collaborating with the Tucson Village Farm to build a mushroom shed, where he and his students will conduct research on mushrooms and how well they break down various materials. That shed will also be open to the public.