Exploring the amazing world of lichens Lichenologist Manuela Dal Forno. Bottom photo: A reindeer lichen. (Alice Gerlach/NMNH)
Exploring the amazing world of lichens
Lexile

Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungus. They have been on earth for millions of years. They live on rocks and trees. They also live in soil. They live in all different habitats on all seven continents. Lichens are all around us. But scientists are still learning about what they areand where they live. They are still learning how many different species of lichens there are.

Fungus is any group of spore-producing organisms feeding on organic matter. This matter includes molds and yeast. It includes mushrooms and toadstools. 

Algae is a simple, non-flowering plant. Algae contain chlorophyll and produce sugar. They produce it through photosynthesis, like other plants. But algae do not have true stems or roots. They do not have leaves or vascular tissue. Most other plants do have these things. Lichenization is a fungal lifestyle. Therefore the name of lichen is the name of the fungus component.

When you look at a lichen, what you’re looking at is the “house” that the fungus and algae grow together. Scientists call this house a “thallus.” When algae and fungus come together to form this house, we see a lichen. This partnership is called a symbiotic relationship. That's because it helps both the fungus and algae survive. Research has shown that lichens are not a natural biological group. This means they do not all come from a single common ancestor, lichens have many origins. Currently there are almost 20,000 species of lichenized fungi known.

In this symbiotic relationship, the fungus and algae benefit from being associated with each other. The fungus provides the house, its shelter. Also called the thallus. This shelter helps the algae survive. It survives in habitats where it would otherwise be exposed to the elements and possibly could not survive. The algae provides food for the fungus, in the form of sugar. The sugar is a byproduct of photosynthesis. That occurs within the algae.

Lichens are very important for the environment. They are an important food source for many animals. They provide nest materials for birds. They provide habitat and material for biomimicry for insects and other organisms.

Lichens are also important for humans. They provide natural dyes and perfumes They provide litmus paper and even food. Humans even use lichens as bio-indicators, organisms that help humans monitor the health of the environment. Some species of lichens are sensitive to environmental pollution. Their presence or absence can help us understand more about the health of the environment, like air quality. 

Lichens produce over one thousand different chemical compounds. Most of them unique to lichens. These compounds include acids and pigments. Some chemicals may even fluoresce under UV light, making them important components for lichen identification.

Lichens have DNA. It is used to identify lichen and compare relationships amongst and within species. DNA analysis has been an important tool for lichenologists. It helps them identify and understand the biodiversity of lichens.

Tune into the free Smithsonian Science How webcast, Exploring the Amazing World of Lichens. You will meet Dr. Manuela Dal Forno. There will be a live video stream and interactive polls and a Q&A. Manu will take questions about lichens and her research. Sign up and tune in here: https://naturalhistory.si.edu/education/distance-learning/exploring-amazing-world-lichens-manuela-dal-forno

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What do you know about lichens? Where did you learn this fact?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (18)
  • OwenN-dec
    3/27/2019 - 01:34 p.m.

    This is very interesting!!!

  • Angel R1
    3/28/2019 - 03:51 p.m.

    Sincerely I did not know anything about lichens, until today I learned something about lichens in this article sounds interesting.

  • ReedA-dec
    3/29/2019 - 09:44 a.m.

    This article was really weird but at the same time really interesting to learn about lichens.

  • Nicolas S-mag
    3/29/2019 - 03:46 p.m.

    I did not know the name of this plant or mushroom but if I have seen the lichens grow in wet places like the river in my community now I understand how important they are

  • Jaqueline V-mag
    3/29/2019 - 10:35 p.m.

    I have never really heard anything about these types of mushrooms I think that if I have seen them but they have very rare shapes some look like sponges

  • Guadalupe C-mag
    3/29/2019 - 11:01 p.m.

    This article seemed important to me, because it shows us the beauty of nature and I was surprised that it consists of lichens and what it can offer us, like making pre-fumes among other things.
    I learned the fact from this article, because I had never heard of liquines and it seemed important to me.

  • Nancy M-mag
    3/30/2019 - 12:01 a.m.

    The truth I had never heard about lichens but I was very interested in this article because it does not mean that we have around us and that they are not a natural biological group.

  • Blanca A-mag
    3/30/2019 - 01:29 a.m.

    they are called like this a group of mushrooms, which feed on sugar that the algae generate through photosynthesis, the fungi helps the environment.

    I read it on the page tween tribune

  • Nicolas A-mag
    3/30/2019 - 01:35 a.m.

    until today l learned about the existence of lichens,l had never heard of that biological mi xtur.and l learned it from this article, l already knew what itis, what it is and l thought it was very impressive how algaeand fungi come toge ther to help each other.

  • Erick A-mag
    3/30/2019 - 03:06 p.m.

    I had never learn about lichens, or read about them. This article proveded me with some information about them and created interest in to know how it forms and how they help eachother in growth. After reading this article I would really like to do a research on lichens and provide myself with more knowledge.

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