Montanan transforms understanding of lichens

Tough lichens cling to life with a three-part partnership.


Tough lichens cling to life with a three-part partnership.

The Atlantic had an article in July about a Montana man who may have overturned scientific understanding of how those incredibly tough and hardy lichens work. For 150 years, the article by Ed Yong says, scientists thought that lichens were composite organisms made up of a fungus in partnership with algae.

Toby Spribille, who was home-schooled in a Montana trailer park and returned here after studying in Germany, found a third element: another sort of fungus that works in partnership with the other two.

Spribille suspected that the additional fungus existed, but it took him five years to find it, going through some 45,000 lichen samples he collected over the years.

“Many of the fundamentals of lichenology will need to be checked, and perhaps re-written,” Yong writes. He quotes John McCutcheon, with whom Spribille works at the University of Montana: “Toby took huge risks for many years. And he changed the field.”

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