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Fungal farmers or algal escorts: lichen adaptation from the algal perspective


Michele D. Piercey-Normore, Fax: (204) 474 7588; E-mail:


Domestication of algae by lichen-forming fungi describes the symbiotic relationship between the photosynthetic (green alga or cyanobacterium; photobiont) and fungal (mycobiont) partnership in lichen associations (Goward 1992). The algal domestication implies that the mycobiont cultivates the alga as a monoculture within its thallus, analogous to a farmer cultivating a food crop. However, the initial photobiont ‘selection’ by the mycobiont may be predetermined by the habitat rather than by the farmer. When the mycobiont selects a photobiont from the available photobionts within a habitat, the mycobiont may influence photobiont growth and reproduction (Ahmadjian & Jacobs 1981) only after the interaction has been initiated. The theory of ecological guilds (Rikkinen et al. 2002) proposes that habitat limits the variety of photobionts available to the fungal partner. While some studies provide evidence to support the theory of ecological guilds in cyanobacterial lichens (Rikkinen et al. 2002), other studies propose models to explain variation in symbiont combinations in green algal lichens (Ohmura et al. 2006; Piercey-Normore 2006; Yahr et al. 2006) hypothesizing the existence of such guilds. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Peksa & Škaloud (2011) test the theory of ecological guilds and suggest a relationship between algal habitat requirements and lichen adaptation in green algal lichens of the genus Lepraria. The environmental parameters examined in this study, exposure to rainfall, altitude and substratum type, are integral to lichen biology. Lichens have a poikilohydric nature, relying on the availability of atmospheric moisture for metabolic processes. Having no known active mechanism to preserve metabolic thallus moisture in times of drought, one would expect a strong influence of the environment on symbiont adaptation to specific habitats. Adaptation to changes in substrata and its properties would be expected with the intimate contact between crustose lichens in the genus Lepraria. Altitude has been suggested to influence species distributions in a wide range of taxonomic groups. This is one of the first studies to illustrate an ecological guild, mainly for exposure to rainfall (ombrophiles and ombrophobes), with green algal lichens.