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Symbiosis in a changing environment – what is the future of the lichen?

School of Geosciences

About the Project

Lichens are a key component of the vegetation, not only for the largest terrestrial biome (the arid biome with 35% of the Earth`s land mass), they are also dominant epiphytes characterising temperate rainforests for example in Scotland. Lichens are a component of the worldwide important cryptogam cover that accounts for c. 50% of terrestrial N fixation and significant amounts of carbon capture (1,2). Lichens are fungi (mycobiont) symbiotic with photosynthetic green algal or cyanobacterial partners (photobiont). The mycobiont composes the major part of the lichen and recent reports indicate that the photobiont is the more adapted symbiont thus more susceptible to change (3,4). Similar to processes in corals, the highly specialised photobiont suffers from elevated growth temperature and this might lead to break up in the symbiotic relationship and lead to lichen death with global warming.
This project will investigate the mechanisms driving lichen symbiosis and its resilience, by examining metabolic processes on the cellular level using protocols established for coral research. Understanding these processes for a range of species, will provide the mechanistic basis needed in assessing climate change risk and identifying threshold temperatures for lichen survival. Recent reports indicate that, for lichens, sensitivity to climate change remains a key area of uncertainty (5), weakening conservation policy.

Key research questions (max 5):
The PhD project will address the following research questions:
1. What are the conditions that lead to a breakup of the lichen symbiosis?
2. What are the cellular processes driving the breakup of the symbiotic relationship?
3. How are the symbiotic exchange rates (sugars) between the two symbionts affected by single and multiple stressors?
4. Are some symbiotic-arrangements more heat-sensitive than others? Are there species with greater climate-sensitivity?
5. How will lichen distribution patterns be affected by climate heating?
This project will analyse mechanisms and the cellular process involved in the lichens symbiotic relationship. The core methodology is based on experimental work simulating differentially stressful environments in growth chambers to test for stress physiology, the development of reactive oxygen species and carbon exchange rates between the symbionts. The student will have access to laboratory facilities, including gas chromatography–mass spectrometers, environmental growth chambers, Chlorophyll-Fluorometers and microscopes (including electron microscopy). The student will have the opportunity to establish novel protocols significant scope to develop their own research ideas within the research questions. The project will involve fieldwork in Scotland. The project will involve close collaboration between the School of Geosciences, the School of Biological Sciences

Funding Notes

The recruited student will gain skills in plant physiology and ecology, climate change science, experimental design, statistical analysis including modelling and field logistics.The School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh has a large research student cohort that will provide peer-support throughout the research program. The multi-disciplinary nature of the project and of the supervisory team will ensure that the scholar experiences training in multiple fields across different campuses, including biology and biogeochemistry. A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills.


1. Porada, P., Tamm, A., Kleidon, A., Pöschl, U., & Weber, B. (2019). Biogeosciences, 16, 2003-2031;
2. Porada, P., Weber, B., Elbert, W., Pöschl, U., & Kleidon, A. (2013). Biogeosciences, 10, 6989-6989;
3. Colesie, C., Büdel, B., Hurry, V., Green, T.G.A. (2017). Global Change Biology 24: 1123–1135
4. Williams, L., Colesie, C., Ullmann, A., Westberg, M., Wedin, M., Büdel, B. (2016) Ecology and Evolution 7: 2560-2574
5. Ellis, C. (2013). Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Impacts Report Card;

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