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enLichen Yourself with What is in Your Own Backyard

For centuries humans have turned to the animal and plant kingdoms of the world for inspiration to create everything from war machines to medicines. They have developed universally renowned products such as Velcro, medical tape, and antibacterial medical devices from the Kingdom of Plants, whereas the Animal Kingdom influenced the invention of tunnel boring machines, reflective road studs, and aeroplane flaps. Now, however, it’s time to wake up and be enLICHENed. There are more kingdoms worth exploring. The kingdom of Fungi and the kingdom of Protista (Alga and cyanobacterium) – together both have a lot to offer mankind. It is a fusion of these two less explored but equally appealing kingdoms, that Research Scientist Dr Cecile Gueidan from the Australian Herbalism Institute said, these fascinating organisms offer mankind insight into life's creation. “My research is about the Lichen and its symbiotic relationship. They are not plants, rather they are organisms composed of fungi and algae and rely on one another to thrive and grow,” Dr Gueidan said. “Fungi are incapable of photosynthesis which means they are unable to generate their own food so because of this fungus seek out a partner to provide a source of nourishment.” “So, when a fungus and an algae or cyanobacterium form a lichen, it provides itself with nutrition to grow and spread. The algae can survive in salt and fresh water and in a drier environment when part of a lichen relationship.

“The two organisms produce a special type of chemistry and cooperate to form a mutual bond,” she said. As one of Australia's most diverse biomes with more than 3200 fungus species and over 12 000 algae species, lichen has a big environmental impact.

Dr Gueidan said an Australian Government website keeps count of how many species occur in Australia.

“It’s also a good resource to look at to find out if a particular species of Lichen occurs in Australia.” Lichens are often compared to canaries in coal mines. When a shift in their health occurs due to excessive nitrogen deposits in the atmosphere this can signify the beginning of ecosystem decline.

According to Dr Gueidan’s research, the growth rate of a Lichen is extremely slow, so slow in fact they grow about 5 millimetres a year. “They spend many years in a young state establishing their relationship. Some have been known to live for hundreds of years,” she said. For scientists to monitor the health of lichens efficiently, they must identify the sources and levels of pollution. Therefore, the highly sensitive nature of lichens means they are great indicators of changes in atmospheric chemistry and deposition. A British Ecological Society research paper stated that lichens have been used as a method of tracking global change from a local to a regional scale since the beginning of the industrial revolution (sulphur dioxide) up to the present (nitrogen deposition). It is likely more evidence of the biodiversity of the humble lichen will become available as research continues. References

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