An Uncanny Lichen-ess

An Uncanny Lichen-ess

EWU professor Jessica Allen studies the diverse world of lichens. Two species she discovered are named after famous women

Illustration for the Inlander by Jeff Drew.

Lichen is everywhere. It grows on sidewalks, rocks, trees, roofs and undistributed soil and in frigid tundras, arid deserts and even contaminated environments.

You just have to look for it, says lichenologist and Eastern Washington University biology professor Jessica Allen.

“They’re really obvious out across the landscape if you’re paying attention, and then you look closer and realize you didn’t even see them before you started looking,” Allen says. “There are over 20,000 species and we’re still describing them. We’re not even close to learning [all species that] exist on the planet, let alone where they live.”

Looking for lichen in the field is one of Allen’s favorite research activities, and she’s pretty good at it. In the past few years she’s co-discovered three lichen species, two of which are named after some well-known — and perhaps unexpected — luminaries: Oprah Winfrey and Dolly Parton.

Scientists estimate as much as 6 percent of the Earth’s land surface is covered by lichen. Though it’s technically a member of the fungi kingdom, lichen is actually a composite organism that arises due to a vital, symbiotic relationship between algae living amongst the fungal structure itself. Lichen structures can be all different shapes, sizes and patterns, including tree-like, flat and leaf-like, powdery or flaky.

The algae living in lichen undergo photosynthesis, feeding both organisms. In turn, lichen protect the algae from ultraviolet light and help it absorb water. Other microorganisms can also make this lichen-algae symbiosis their home, like tiny worms, tardigrades and various bacteria, Allen explains.

Dolly Parton’s namesake lichen is the Japewiella dollypartoniana, common name Dolly’s Dots, which grows on the bark of trees in the Appalachian Mountains near where the musician grew up. On the trip leading to its discovery, Allen and fellow lichenologist James Lendemer had been listening to Parton’s music on repeat, choosing to name the lichen in honor of her contributions to music and philanthropy.

The rarer Oprah’s Sunshine lichen (Hypotrachyna oprah) was named because it was also discovered near the media maven’s hometown of Chicago. The species notably glows bright yellow under ultraviolet light.

Both lichens were intentionally named after women because historically so very few species are, Allen says.

“We decided to name a few after not just any women, but those who’ve made a huge impact in the past century.”

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