The Lichen Characteristics

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This cross-section of a lichen thallus shows its various components. The upper cortex of fungal hyphae provides protection. Photosynthesis occurs in the algal zone. The medulla consists of fungal hyphae. The lower cortex also provides protection. The rhizines anchor the thallus to the substrate.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

A lichen is a combination of two organisms, a green alga or cyanobacterium and an ascomycete fungus, living in a symbiotic relationship. Whereas algae normally grow only in aquatic or extremely moist environments, lichens can potentially be found on almost any surface (especially rocks) or as epiphytes (meaning that they grow on other plants).

In some ways, the symbiotic relationship between lichens and algae seems like a mutualism (a relationship in which both organisms benefit). The fungus can obtain photosynthates from the algae or cyanobacterium and the algae or cyanobacterium can grow in a drier environment than it could otherwise tolerate. However, most scientists consider this symbiotic relationship to be a controlled parasitism (a relationship in which one organism benefits and the other is harmed) because the photosynthetic organism grows less well than it would without the fungus. It is important to note that such symbiotic interactions fall along a continuum between conflict and cooperation.

Lichens are slow growing and can live for centuries. They have been used in foods and to extract chemicals as dyes or antimicrobial substances. Some are very sensitive to pollution and have been used as environmental indicators.

Lichens have a body called a thallus, an outer, tightly packed fungal layer called a cortex, and an inner, loosely packed fungal layer called a medulla. Lichens use hyphal bundles called rhizines to attach to the substrate.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: