All about Lichens

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"All about Lichens"
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Lichens can be described as a perfect example of a symbiotic relationship between algae and certain fungi. The relationship allows the two organisms to tolerate even the harshest weather conditions and sustain an active life for many centuries. Due to its efficient lifestyle, lichens can be seen on boggy surfaces, on rocks, on the surface of volcanoes, as well as on trees. These complexes can appear in many different colors due to its algae constituents and hues of green, red and blue are some of the commonest appearances for lichens. Using advanced technological knowhow, scientists are able to unravel some of the secrets behind the lichens success and are therefore able to make use of lichens for many different uses. Thus, this article expects to describe the structure of lichens and some of its uses with regard to the nature as well as for the everyday life of humans.

How are lichens formed?

As described earlier, lichens consist of algae and fungi. The reason for their association is that both organisms have mutual benefits from each other’s association. Thus, algae have the ability to synthesize sugars as they can perform photosynthesis. The synthesized sugars by the algae can provide the fungi with enough energy to sustain life as it cannot produce its own food. The fungi on the other hand can provide the algae with a protective enclosure, which can maintain moisture while providing the algae with indirect sun light. However, without the protection of the fungi, the algae would not sustain the rigors of nature such as rain, direct sunlight and harsh winds. Therefore, in combination, both organisms can obtain what they want and sustain their association for even centuries.

What are the natural uses of lichens?

Lichens are highly useful to form soil especially on the surface of a rock. The reason for forming soil on the surface of a rock by the lichens is its ability to secrete various chemicals, which can digest the rock surface and therefore make the rock to crumble. At the same time, certain lichens can protect the soil from the wind and from the rain by holding the soil together. In addition, the nitrogen content of the soil can be improved because of the presence of certain lichens - they have the ability to trap nitrogen from air within the lichen complex.  Some lichens, on the other hand, can provide additional nutrients to the soil, which makes certain crops, grow better in such soils.

In harsh environments, lichens could be the only source of food and water to certain animals and other organisms while having a lichen cover could prevent certain places on earth from becoming barren land. Meanwhile, experts are of the opinion that lichens are one of the main organisms living in the planet, which can clean-up the polluted environments although by doing so, the lichens would endanger itself towards destruction.

How were lichens used in the olden days?

In ancient times, artists were using lichens to make various colors in the form of dyes and pigments as it can easily get absorbed into wool and silk. Some forms of lichens were used for brewing as well as for perfume distillation. In some instances, the lichens were useful to stave off starvation although its bitterness makes it a not so pleasant dish to eat.

What are the modern uses of lichens?

When discussing the modern day uses of lichens, its value as an indicator of environmental pollution could not be forgotten. In fact, scientists believe that lichens are one of the most sensitive organisms, which can capture most elements present in the air surrounding it and therefore allow the accumulation of such elements with time. However, some of these elements can act as toxins and may lead to the extinction of lichens in a specific region. Thus, its presence, extinction or analysis of its chemical constituents may provide the scientists with a measure of assessing the potential environmental pollution.

The ability of certain lichens to produce chemicals that can act against viruses, bacteria as well as against certain weeds could be used for the benefit of the humankind. Thus, researchers are studying the potential uses of such chemicals when producing drugs, weedicides and pesticides as well as fertilizer.

Therefore, it is apparent from the discussion that lichens are a valuable component in certain habitats and preservation of such complexes would not only help maintain the environmental balance, but will also provide immense support towards the scientific community in their discoveries. 

More about this author: Dr Pandula Siribaddana

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