Exploring symbiont management in lichens

Martin Grube, Toby Spribille
Molecular Ecology 2012, 21 (13): 3098-9
Lichens are unique among fungal symbioses in that their mycelial structures are compact and exposed to the light as thallus structures. The myriad intersections of unique fungal species with photosynthetic partner organisms (green algae in 90% of lichens) produce a wide variety of diverse shapes and colours of the fully synthesized lichen thallus when growing in nature. This characteristic complex morphology is, however, not achieved in the fungal axenic state. Even under ideal environmental conditions, the lichen life cycle faces considerable odds: first, meiotic spores are only produced on well-established thalli and often only after achieving considerable age in a stable environment, and second, even then in vivo resynthesis requires the presence of compatible algal strains where fungal spores germinate. Many lichen species have evolved a way around the resynthesis bottleneck by producing asexual propagules for joint propagation of symbionts. These different dispersal strategies ostensibly shape the population genetic structure of lichen symbioses, but the relative contributions of vertical (joint) and horizontal (independent) symbiont transmission have long eluded lichen evolutionary biologists. In this issue of Molecular Ecology, Dal Grande et al. (2012) close in on this question with the lung lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria, a flagship species in the conservation of old growth forests. By capitalizing on available microsatellite markers for both fungal and algal symbionts, they show that while vertical transmission is the predominant mode of reproduction, horizontal transmission is demonstrable and actively shapes population genetic structure. The resulting mixed propagation system is a highly successful balance of safe recruitment of symbiotic clones and endless possibilities for fungal recombination and symbiont shuffling.

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