"That was the eureka moment."
July 22, 2016 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
posted by komara (39 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm lichen this post!
posted by sammyo at 6:49 AM on July 22, 2016 [24 favorites]


When I was an undergraduate, I did my Honors Thesis on lichens, and you cannot imagine how thrilled this makes me.


PS- there are some lichens that have both green algae (eukaryote) and blue-green algae (prokaryote) as symbionts. So those would be symbiotic organisms made of four partners and three kingdoms.
posted by acrasis at 6:49 AM on July 22, 2016 [29 favorites]


Teasers are fine for the Atlantic but in case anyone wants the punchline: esteemed establishment scientist and team have shown one group of lichens has two distinct fungal partners in the symbiotic relationship, not just one as previously thought.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:56 AM on July 22, 2016 [13 favorites]


would be symbiotic organisms made of four partners and three kingdoms.
Maybe? Are you talking about ascomycete macrolichens? As far as I can tell that's all this new work talks about.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:09 AM on July 22, 2016


Lichens can include cyanobacteria as well...
posted by jim in austin at 7:10 AM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


But he didn’t work alone, Watkinson notes. His discovery wouldn’t have been possible without the entire team, who combined their individual expertise in natural history, genomics, microscopy, and more. That’s a theme that resonates throughout the history of symbiosis research—it takes an alliance of researchers to uncover nature’s most intimate partnerships.

Seriously, the "lone genius" theory of who makes science has to die. Science is done by lots of moderately smart people collaborating together.
posted by sukeban at 7:25 AM on July 22, 2016 [31 favorites]


"Seriously, the "lone genius" theory of who makes science has to die. Science is done by lots of moderately smart people collaborating together."

Yeah, that's why I didn't include their headline 'How a Guy From a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology' in the post anywhere, because that's not the point or even entirely accurate.
posted by komara at 7:29 AM on July 22, 2016 [12 favorites]


Thanks for the post! I wanted to know more after reading it and found this CBC write up to be a more scientifically satisfying read. Less drama, more science.
posted by bread-eater at 7:31 AM on July 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


THIS IS SO EXCITING

I SO EXCITE
posted by barchan at 7:33 AM on July 22, 2016 [9 favorites]


Seriously, the "lone genius" theory of who makes science has to die.

Even if you're not lichen the framing of this story, you have to admit he seems like a fun-gi.
posted by brevator at 7:38 AM on July 22, 2016 [26 favorites]


This is marvellous. I've always loved lichens - grew up next to a churchyard and near old woods, so there were plenty to enjoy, and to see one growing on a 300 year old gravestone, while knowing that it's slowly turning dead stone to life-supporting soil through sunlight, gives a chap no end to muse on. Nobody knows for sure, but lichen-like symbiotes were very possibly at work in the Precambrian (the earliest definite fossils only date back to the early Devonian [yay] because stuiff that lives on bare rocks rarely fossilises) gives a sense of very ancient life patiently eating away at the millenia.

Aesthetically, they are remarkable - but you have to look at them properly. A glance won't do it: a hand-lens will pull you in.

And this story! Home-schooled fundamentalist cult family member with no grades gets himself half-way around the world to talk himself into one of the few universities that'll see past his lack of formal education - all because he loves science above all. How much to overcome in that journey... and then to study a quintessential for-the-love-of-it subject, in which he becomes the crux in the changing of acentury-old given truth. I would like to meet this man.

Great, great story, and shurely a book in the making.

(My editorial hackles were raised by some of the writing in the story itself, though: What to make of

When we think about the microbes that influence the health of humans and other animals, the algae that provide coral reefs with energy, the mitochondria that power our cells, the gut bacteria that allow cows to digest their food, or the probiotic products that line supermarket shelves—all of that can be traced to the birth of the symbiosis as a concept. And symbiosis, in turn, began with lichens.

Seems to be mixing up symbiosis as a biological idea and the evolution of symbiosis as a system (which you'd think would have to re-evolve multiple times, as symbiosis itself is rather more complex to fit into evolutionary mechanisms than many traits). And the story has tensions, which it recognises but doesn't resolve entirely happily, between the lone genius and science-as-symbiosis. It seems churlish to criticise what is a good piece of science reportage because it doesn't develop a simile, but in this case I think the material could have supported something beyond good. I hope whoever writes the book nails that, because it could be a classic.)
posted by Devonian at 7:56 AM on July 22, 2016 [11 favorites]


This is so cool.
posted by rtha at 8:02 AM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I find it comforting that, amidst all the current insanity, human beings are still out there thinking and increasing our understanding of the world.
posted by praemunire at 8:16 AM on July 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


I have to wonder how all of the many fungal genetics people managed to miss this for so long. Generic fungal primers are as good on basidios as they are on ascos.

My guess is the scope of it isn't as big as they think (maybe it's just a few "species of lichen) or it just got dismissed as a contaminant or a symbiont over and over.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:35 AM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is so, so cool.

I wonder if Ed Yong (author of the article) will also be the guy who writes the book. He's a specialist in microbiota! His book "I Contain Multitudes" is about human/bacteria symbiosis and it's coming out soon. I have to admit I'm hoping it'll be more like his stuff on his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science than at the Atlantic, which has been a bit pop-sci for my taste. (Like 50% of that is whoever writes his headlines, who is doing a BAD job. "Climate Change Unleashed Humans On South America's Megabeasts"--literally true and completely misleading.)

But generally speaking he's one of my fave science writers: he covers interesting topics when their results are really meaningful (not just a press release), he is just so genuinely joyous about the wonder of discovery all the time, and he keeps the rumination about whether that means humanity has a soul to a minimum.
posted by peppercorn at 8:40 AM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Man, Science is painstaking AF.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:13 AM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Speaking as someone from a similar home environment to the lead on this project, it's deeply gross that they make him into some sort of exotic freak of nature because he grew up poor. Poor people are not goblins from the freaking moon.
posted by winna at 9:13 AM on July 22, 2016 [8 favorites]


The species in Azimov's The God's Themselves have three forms of life that join together, and, come to think of it, they live by photosynthesis too.
posted by eye of newt at 9:20 AM on July 22, 2016


So I can go up to lichen and say "You didn't build that"?
posted by srboisvert at 9:25 AM on July 22, 2016



Speaking as someone from a similar home environment to the lead on this project, it's deeply gross that they make him into some sort of exotic freak of nature because he grew up poor. Poor people are not goblins from the freaking moon.


I didn't get that. I got that he was poor, sure,but that was just one thing among very many which made his story exceptional. Should that have been omitted in describing his origins?
posted by Devonian at 9:32 AM on July 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Despite their seemingly obvious location, it took around five years to find them. They’re embedded in a matrix of sugars, as if someone had plastered over them. To see them, Spribille bought laundry detergent from Wal-Mart and used it to very carefully strip that matrix away.

Science is so cool.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:49 AM on July 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


You moss be kidding me.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 10:10 AM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Love it. Fungi in general have been relatively overlooked by biologists, but that's starting to change. We are coming to realize that they play roles as endosymbionts in just all kinds of places that you'd never expect to find them. It's very challenging, in the same way that understanding the human microbiome is challenging—it blurs the borders between species and organisms and individuals in ways that traditional biological paradigms are not very well equipped to handle. As we begin to understand how pervasive and important that blurriness is though, old paradigms are expanding and flexing and new ones are being invented. This is a very cool thing.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:12 AM on July 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


In case anyone else was wondering why they turned to a "laundry detergent from Wal-Mart" when surely the lab had several other detergents available, I looked up the methods from the supplementary material from the Science article. It says the detergent used, Ariel Actilift, has a protease (a protein-digesting enzyme) and that the process "cleans the internal hyphae of polysaccharides and, judging from the published images, also of any yeast cells." They cited some other papers but it wasn't clear who first came up with the idea to use the stuff and I didn't feel like going any further down that path...
posted by exogenous at 12:22 PM on July 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


From Trevor Goward's Ways of Enlichenment (ha!), Twelve Readings on the Lichen Thallus
posted by mustardayonnaise at 2:14 PM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I've met Trevor Goward, he's a true Lichen Visionary and a fascinating person who should be the narrator of a 'The Nature of Things' style documentary about Lichen with a groovy soundtrack.
posted by ovvl at 3:15 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the "They are wrong" tone of the article leans a bit towards the sensational, as Lichenologists have long known that there's plenty more going on in symbiosis than can be imagined. But hey, any excitement and interest is good, this story is about Lichenologists that are identifying and defining some more of the complex relationships, which actually is kinda sensational in Lichen world.
posted by ovvl at 3:42 PM on July 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is the most excited I've ever been about lichen. Super cool!
posted by Akhu at 4:00 PM on July 22, 2016


One note implied in the Atlantic article is that The University of Gottingen can be supportive about projects by researchers that don't quite have all of the academic regalia lined up. Someone I know finished a doctorate there developed from latent research. Maybe Beatrix Potter should have gone there, she did some pretty good Lichen research in her time. Regret it would have been just a bit too late for her to meet The Brothers Grimm, though.
posted by ovvl at 4:01 PM on July 22, 2016


Even if you're not lichen the framing of this story, you have to admit he seems like a fun-gi.

YOU ALMOST SEEM AS IF YOURE PROUD OF YOURSELF

Anyway....

Yes, this is the work of a team, and yes, the lone genius model of discovery is usually not accurate. But the guy still seems very interesting anyway!
posted by JHarris at 5:13 PM on July 22, 2016


This makes me happy. One of the early posts I made at MeFi back in.....holy shit, 2002....was a series of links to the Lichen Portrait Gallery site. Some beautiful images there.
posted by mediareport at 9:29 PM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I feel like the climax of this tale about a man uncovering the presence of a ubiquitous inhuman symbiote scientists had never suspected was there could have been written with more italics and exclamations like "God!" and "Inconceivable it was!"
posted by No-sword at 12:30 AM on July 23, 2016


I can't let this opportunity pass without linking to my favorite two fungi related facts:

The untimely death of a fruiting slime mold.

The heather plant with no chlorophyll that lives by parasitising fungi.
posted by Bee'sWing at 10:53 AM on July 24, 2016 [4 favorites]


So cool. There's a "blurring the lines between organisms" thread in there that the article tugs on but doesn't really pull, and I'm not high enough to really tweezer it myself, but the idea that something so successful and ubiquitous could be the result of chance meetings of three separately successful parts only begins at amazing.
posted by lucidium at 5:03 PM on July 24, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is the kind of yeoman science that government should be encouraging, instead of forcing academic labs to pretend they're curing cancer. We need more cool undirected research, that's where the actual innovation will happen. Politicians just can't imagine that anything good will come out of something with no obvious goal.
posted by benzenedream at 9:33 PM on July 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


benzenedream: Politicians just can't imagine that anything good will come out of something with no obvious goal.

"These so-called *scientists* got government money to learn about lichen sex! Can you even imagine?!? Yeah, I'm 'lichen' sex, too, pardon the pun, but no government gives me money for it!"
posted by clawsoon at 2:11 PM on July 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


The headline of "How a Guy From a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology" seems kind of strange -- the article fails to mention why what type of housing the scientist lived in as a child has any bearing on the discovery.
posted by yohko at 7:27 PM on July 27, 2016


yohko: the article fails to mention why what type of housing the scientist lived in as a child has any bearing on the discovery.

It has a bearing because we suck at nourishing the talent of the disadvantaged, especially when it comes to science. I remember seeing a graph a while ago which showed the relationship between parental income and occupation. Scientists had, on average, some of the highest-earning parents on the chart, below only a couple of groups like lawyers and judges.
posted by clawsoon at 7:16 AM on July 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


I agree clawson. However, the headline comes across as a bit more "lol trailerparks" instead of an argument in favor of making educational opportunities more widely available.
posted by yohko at 5:10 PM on July 28, 2016


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