Basidiomycete yeasts in the cortex of ascomycete macrolichens

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Science  29 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6298, pp. 488-492
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf8287

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Lichens assemble in three parts

Lichen growth forms cannot be recapitulated in the laboratory by culturing the plant and fungal partners together. Spribille et al. have discovered that the classical binary view of lichens is too simple. Instead, North American beard-like lichens are constituted of not two but three symbiotic partners: an ascomycetous fungus, a photosynthetic alga, and, unexpectedly, a basidiomycetous yeast. The yeast cells form the characteristic cortex of the lichen thallus and may be important for its shape. The yeasts are ubiquitous and essential partners for most lichens and not the result of lichens being colonized or parasitized by other organisms.

Science, this issue p. 488


For over 140 years, lichens have been regarded as a symbiosis between a single fungus, usually an ascomycete, and a photosynthesizing partner. Other fungi have long been known to occur as occasional parasites or endophytes, but the one lichen–one fungus paradigm has seldom been questioned. Here we show that many common lichens are composed of the known ascomycete, the photosynthesizing partner, and, unexpectedly, specific basidiomycete yeasts. These yeasts are embedded in the cortex, and their abundance correlates with previously unexplained variations in phenotype. Basidiomycete lineages maintain close associations with specific lichen species over large geographical distances and have been found on six continents. The structurally important lichen cortex, long treated as a zone of differentiated ascomycete cells, appears to consistently contain two unrelated fungi.

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