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There are thousands of known species of molds, which include opportunistic pathogens, saprotrophs, aquatic species, and thermophiles. Like all fungi, molds derive energy not through photosynthesis but from the organic matter in which they live. 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 secrete mycotoxins which, together with hydrolytic enzymes, inhibit the growth of competing microorganisms.

Molds are ubiquitous in nature, and mold spores are a common component of household and workplace dust. However, when mold spores are present in large quantities, they can present a health hazard to humans, potentially causing allergic reactions and respiratory problems.

Some molds also produce mycotoxins that can pose serious health risks to humans and animals. Some studies claim that exposure to high levels of mycotoxins can lead to neurological problems and in some cases death. Prolonged exposure, e.g. daily workplace exposure, may be particularly harmful. Research on the health effects of mold has not been conclusive. The term toxic mold refers to molds that produce mycotoxins, such as Stachybotrys chartarum, and not to all molds in general.[6]

Mold in the home can usually be found in damp, dark or steam filled areas e.g. bathroom or kitchen, over cramped storage areas, recently flooded areas, basement areas, plumbing spaces, areas with poor ventilation and outdoors in humid environments. Symptoms caused by mold allergy are watery, itchy eyes, a chronic cough, headaches or migraines, difficulty breathing, rashes, tiredness, sinus problems, nasal blockage and frequent sneezing. In extremely rare cases, over-exposure to mold may result in bucal mold growth leading to death by asphyxiation.

Many molds can begin growing at 4 °C (39 °F), the temperature within a typical refrigerator, or less. When conditions do not enable growth, molds may remain alive in a dormant state depending on the species, within a large range of temperatures before they die. The many different mold species vary enormously in their tolerance to temperature and humidity extremes. Certain molds can survive harsh conditions such as the snow-covered soils of Antarctica, refrigeration, highly acidic solvents, and even petroleum products such as jet fuel.

Xerophilic molds use the humidity in the air as their only water source; other molds need more moisture. Mold has a musty odor.