TBG-Project Imke Schmitt and team

Ecological functions of bioactive natural products from lichens

Institution: Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung


Lichens are symbiotic consortia consisting of fungi, algae, and specific suites of associated bacteria, which produce a plethora of unique and bioactive natural products. Most species have a low biomass, grow slowly, and are difficult to cultivate and manipulate in the lab. Thus, the pharmaceutical potential, and the ecological roles of lichen substances are underexplored. Here, we develop genomic tools to better understand the molecular background of natural product biosynthesis in lichens, and facilitate biotechnological approaches to harvesting lichen compounds. Specifically, we address the questions: 1) Which biosynthetic gene clusters and compounds are involved in environmental adaptation of lichens? 2) Can we link compounds to gene clusters? 3) Which lichen substances, or substance combinations, have pharmaceutical potential? We use metagenomic whole thallus sequencing to investigate biosynthetic genes of fungal and bacterial genomes in the lichen symbiosis.

Group expertise / Methods

  • Metagenomics, de novo genome assembly from mixed DNA samples
  • High molecular weight DNA extraction, and NGS sequencing of “difficult” organisms
  • Population genomics
  • Genome mining, and genome annotation (especially biosynthetic gene clusters)


Singh, G.; Armaleo, D.; Dal Grande, F.; Schmitt, I. Depside and Depsidone Synthesis in Lichenized Fungi Comes into Focus through a Genome-Wide Comparison of the Olivetoric Acid and Physodic Acid Chemotypes of Pseudevernia furfuracea. Biomolecules 2021, 11, 1445. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom11101445

Singh, G., Calchera, A., Schulz, M., Drechsler, M., Bode, H.B., Schmitt, I. and Dal Grande, F. (2021): Climate-specific biosynthetic gene clusters in populations of a lichen-forming fungus. Environmental Microbiology, doi: 10.1111/1462-2920.15605

Greshake Tzovaras B, Segers FHID, Bicker A, et al. (2020). What is in Umbilicaria pustulata? A metagenomic approach to reconstruct the holo-genome of a lichen. Genome Biology and Evolution, 12(4), 309-324.

Ingelfinger R, Henke M, Roser L, et al. (2020). Unraveling the pharmacological potential of lichen extracts in the context of cancer and inflammation with a broad screening approach. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 11, 1322.

Press release

20.07.2021 – Genome reveals that lichens can produce different climate-specific natural substances  Senckenberg Society for Nature research / LOEWE Centre for Translational Biodiversity Genomics