February 15, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Lichens: Two Designs Are Better than One

A lichen is a symbiotic organism comprised of an alga and a fungus.  PNAS1 reported a study that showed that “antioxidant and photoprotective mechanisms in the lichen Cladonia vulcani are more effective by orders of magnitude than those of its isolated partners” (emphasis added in all quotes).  Kranner et al. found:

Without the fungal contact, the alga tolerates only very dim light and its photoprotective system is only partially effective; without the alga, the glutathione-based antioxidant system of the fungus is slow and ineffective.  In the lichen, this mutually enhanced resistance to oxidative stress and, in particular, its desiccation tolerance are essential for life above ground.  This lifestyle, in turn, increases the chance of dispersal of reproductive propagules and ensures their joint evolutionary success.


1Kranner et al., “Antioxidants and photoprotection in a lichen as compared with its isolated symbiotic partners,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 10.1073/pnas.0407716102, published online before print February 14, 2005.

Take out the word “evolutionary,” because the findings only show reproductive success.  Survivability does not necessarily imply advancement in complexity; it could just as well reflect good design.
    Lichens are often the pioneer organisms in a new habitat.  They contribute to the breakdown of rock and formation of soil.  Mosses, ferns and other organisms follow sometimes, and before long, a whole community of plants and animals can come to town.  In the fjords of New Zealand, for example, this happens on sheer cliff faces of rock.  After some years or decades of initial colonization by lichens, large trees can take root in the near-vertical cliffs.
    Lichens show tremendous variety in form and structure.  Some are beautifully colored.  The Dec. 2004 Creation Research Society Quarterly has a photo essay about lichens and their microscopic structure.  The internet has some nice photo galleries like this one at lichen.com.

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