Viruses, Bacteria, Protists, and Fungi

What is the relationship between lichens and pollution?

Lichens are extremely sensitive to pollutants in the atmosphere and can be used as bioindicators of air quality. They absorb minerals from the air, from rainwater, and directly from their substrate. Lichen growth has been used as an indicator of air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide. Pollutants are absorbed by lichens, causing the destruction of their chlorophyll, which leads to a decrease in the occurrence of photosynthesis and changes in membrane permeability. Lichens are generally absent in and around cities, even though suitable substrates exist; the reason for this is the polluted exhaust from automobiles and industrial activity. They are beginning to disappear from national parks and other relatively remote areas that are becoming increasingly contaminated by industrial pollution. The return of lichens to an area frequently indicates a reduction in air pollution.

Lichens are also used to assess radioactive pollution levels in the vicinity of uranium mines, environments where nuclear-powered satellites have crashed, former nuclear bomb testing sites, and power stations that have incurred accidents. Following the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster in 1986, arctic lichens as far away as Lapland were tested and showed levels of radioactive dust that were as much as165 times higher than had been previously recorded.


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