Quite possibly one of the oldest symbiotic relationships on Earth has been hiding in plain sight all this time. Lichens have long been regarded as the poster child for symbiotic relationships. Certain species of fungi team up with specific algae and/or cyanobacteria in a sort of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" type of relationship. In return for room and board the photosynthetic partner feeds the fungus. There are many variations on this theme which translates into the myriad shapes and colors of lichen species around the globe. For 150 years we have been operating under the assumption that there is only ever one species of fungus (in the phylum Ascomycota) for any given lichen. We were wrong.
Originally thought to be contamination, researchers at the University of Montana and Perdue found gene expression belonging to the other major fungal phyla, Basidiomycota. The research team soon realized that they had uncovered something quite monumental. Lichens were harboring a partner we never knew existed. These newly discovered fungi are an entirely new lineage of yeast. What's more, this relationship has been documented in upwards of 52 other lichen genera worldwide!
This discovery has led to another major breakthrough in lichen biology, their bizarre variety. The exact same species of fungus and alga can produce completely different lichens with wildly different attributes. Take the example of Bryoria torturosa and B. fremontii. They were thought to share the same partners and yet one is yellow and toxic whereas the other is brown and innocuous. Knowing what to look for, however, has revealed that their yeast partners are entirely different. The yeast is thought to be a sort of shield for the lichen, producing noxious acids that deter infections and predation.
Almost overnight a new light has been shown on our lichen neighbors. These newly discovered partners aren't a recent evolutionary development. This trifecta likely stems back to the early days when little else lived on land. It just goes to show you how much we still do not know about our planet. It's nice to be reminded of this.