Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt


The scientists of the cryptogamic section try to answer questions about the evolution, biogeography and adaptation of lichens, fungi that live in symbiosis with green algae or cyanobacteria.

The number of lichen species that live on Earth is still unknown. We also know little about the phylogenetic relationships of many species. The lichens investigated by us, belong to the large genera Lecidea and Lecanora and grow on organic substrata such as tree bark, wood or bryophytes.

Because many species are rare and inconspicuous, it is often a major challenge to spot them in the field.

Therefore field-work is an important part of our job. In order to identify the species and to find their place in the system, we have to investigate anatomical sections under the microscope. In addition, chemical data is often necessary.

We rely on genetic data and methods from population genetics to explain the biogeographical patterns of species, their speciation and evolution.

Right: Lichens dominate the vegetation of rocky shores. Dense cover of Ramalina cuspidata on the Isles of Scilly (Great Britain, Cornwall).

Ramalina cuspidata (not: R. siliquosa!)
Cetraria aculeata

Left: Lichens are symbioses of fungi and green algae or cyanobacteria. The fungal partner of Cetraria aculeata forms a dense cortex. The loose medulla consists of single cells of the green algae Trebouxia jamesii entwined by fungal hyphae. The algae provides the symbiosis with photosynthetic products.


The distributional ranges of most lichens are large in comparison to those of flowering plants and often span several continents. In two finished and projects and one dissertation project started in October 2013 we try to infer the influence of Earth history and ecological factors on the distributional ranges of lichens.

Especially in the case of inconspicuous crustal lichens, we still do not know how many species there are on earth. Nowadays, genetic methods can help to discover new species or to better distinguish similar species from each other. The project "Lecanomics: New ways of species detection and recognition in a ubiquitous group of lichens" is part of the DFG priority programme "Taxon-omics". Here we try to decompose the large and widespread lichen genus Lecanora into more natural units and study species delimitation using molecular genetic methods and involving amateurs and scientists who currently do not have access to these methods.

Lidia S. Yakovchenko, Evgeny A. Davydov, Yoshihito Ohmura, Christian Printzen (2018) The phylogenetic position of species of Lecanora s. lat. containing calycin and usnic acid, with the description of Lecanora solaris Yakovchenko & Davydov sp. nov. Lichenologist (in press)


Antarctica is the only continent that still has largely natural habitats more or less unaffected by human activity. Its isolated location and the restriction to small, widely separated ice-free areas have led to a strong genetic differentiation and local adaptation of fauna and flora. However, this genetic diversity is increasingly threatened by the introduction of alien species and the homogenization of previously separated populations. The project "Dispersal and genetic exchange of lichen populations between Patagonia and the Antarctic Peninsula (with a focus on human impact)" is funded by the DFG Priority Programme "Antarctic Research". Here we investigate the population genetic structure of five widespread lichen species and try to estimate whether human activities contribute to the introduction of alien species or genotypes and to the homogenization of gene pools.

Grewe F, Lagostina E, Wu H, Printzen C, Lumbsch HT (2018) Population genomic analyses of RAD sequences resolves the phylogenetic relationship of the lichen-forming fungal species Usnea antarctica and Usnea aurantiacoatra. Mycokeys 43: 91–113.

Lagostina E, Dal Grande F, Andreev M, Printzen C (2018) The use of microsatellite markers for species delimitation in Antarctic Usnea subgenus Neuropogon. Mycologia 110: 1047–1057.

Lagostina E, Dal Grande F, Ott S, Printzen C (2017) Fungus-specific SSR markers in the Antarctic lichens Usnea antarctica and U. aurantiacoatra (Parmeliaceae, Ascomycota). Applications in Plant Sciences 5(9): 1700054.

Cetraria aculeata: King George Island / Antarctic Cetraria aculeata: Bale Mountains / Ethiopia

The fruticose lichen Cetraria aculeata inhabits a huge distributional range that reaches from the Arctic into the Antarctic. This photograph was taken on King George Island in the maritime Antarctic.

In addition C. aculeata is found in Central and Southern Europe, Central Asia and most high mountain ranges, for example in the alpine zone of the Bale Mts. in Ethiopia.

Within the project „Phylogeography and speciation of lichens from the Cetraria aculeata complex in Western Eurasia” PhD student Tetiana Lutsak (funded by the DAAD, additional funding by Marga und Kurt Möllgaard-Stiftung and Adolf-Messer­-Stiftung) studies genetical isolation and species delimitation between closely related lichens using molecular genetic methods.

Lutsak T, Fernández-Mendoza F, Kirika P, Wondafrash M, Printzen C (in review) Coalescence-based species delimitation using genome-wide data reveals hidden diversity in a cosmopolitan group of lichens. Organisms Diversity and Evolution

Lutsak T, Fernández-Mendoza F, Nadyeina O, Şenkardeşler A, Printzen C (2017) Testing the correlation between norstictic acid content and species evolution in the Cetraria aculeata group in Europe. Lichenologist 49: 39–56.

Lutsak T, Fernández-Mendoza F, Greshake B, Dal Grande F, Ebersberger I, Ott S, Printzen C (2016) Characterisation of microsatellite loci in the bipolar lichen-forming fungus Cetraria aculeata (Parmeliaceae, Ascomycota). Applications in Plant Sciences 4(9): 1600047.

Lutsak T, Fernández-Mendoza F, Kirika P, Wondafrash M, Printzen C (2016) Mycobiont-photobiont interactions of the lichen Cetraria aculeata in high alpine regions of East Africa and South America. Symbiosis 68: 25–37.

Nadyeina O, Lutsak T, Blum O, Grakhov V, Scheidegger C (2013) Cetraria steppae Savicz is conspecific with Cetraria aculeata (Schreb.) Fr. according to morphology, secondary chemistry and ecology. The Lichenologist 45, 841-856.

Current Research Projects

  • Studies on species delimitation and speciation of lichens (Tetiana Lutsak, DAAD, and various cooperation partners) 
  • Systematics and phylogeny of the lichen genus Biatora in the North Pacific Region
  • Systematics and phylogeny of corticolous lichens from the form genus Lecidea (various cooperation partners)
  • Lecanomics: New ways of species detection and recognition in a ubiquitous group of lichens (Cristóbal Ivanovich, DFG Pr 567/ 19-1)
  • Dispersal and genetic exchange of lichen populations between Patagonia and the Antarctic Peninsula (with a focus on human impact) (Elisa Lagostina, DFG Pr 567/ 18-1, 18-2)