Lichen vs. Mycorrhizae

What's the Difference?

Lichen and mycorrhizae are both symbiotic relationships involving fungi, but they differ in their partners and habitats. Lichen is a mutualistic association between a fungus and either an alga or a cyanobacterium. The fungus provides a protective structure and absorbs water and nutrients, while the alga or cyanobacterium performs photosynthesis to produce food. Lichen can be found in diverse environments, including rocks, trees, and soil. On the other hand, mycorrhizae are mutualistic associations between fungi and plant roots. The fungi help plants absorb nutrients, particularly phosphorus, from the soil, while the plants provide carbohydrates to the fungi. Mycorrhizae are widespread in terrestrial ecosystems and play a crucial role in nutrient cycling and plant growth.


DefinitionA symbiotic association between a fungus and an alga or cyanobacterium.A mutualistic association between a fungus and the roots of a vascular plant.
ComponentsFungus + Alga or CyanobacteriumFungus + Plant Roots
Benefit to FungusProvides a source of food (carbohydrates) from the photosynthetic partner.Enhances nutrient uptake (especially phosphorus) from the soil.
Benefit to Photosynthetic PartnerProvides a protected environment and access to nutrients and water.Enhances nutrient uptake (especially nitrogen) from the soil.
TypesCrustose, Foliose, FruticoseEctomycorrhizae, Arbuscular mycorrhizae
OccurrenceFound in various terrestrial habitats, including forests, tundra, deserts, and rocky surfaces.Common in most ecosystems, particularly in forests and grasslands.
FunctionPhotosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, soil stabilization.Nutrient uptake, water absorption, disease resistance.

Further Detail


Lichen and mycorrhizae are two fascinating symbiotic relationships found in nature. While they both involve a partnership between different organisms, they differ in terms of their composition, ecological roles, and the benefits they provide to their respective partners. In this article, we will explore the attributes of lichen and mycorrhizae, highlighting their unique characteristics and the significance of these relationships in the natural world.


Lichen is a composite organism formed by the mutualistic association between a fungus and either an alga or a cyanobacterium. The fungus provides a protective structure and absorbs water and nutrients, while the alga or cyanobacterium performs photosynthesis, producing organic compounds that nourish both partners. This partnership allows lichen to thrive in diverse environments, including harsh conditions such as deserts and rocky surfaces.

Mycorrhizae, on the other hand, are associations between fungi and the roots of most vascular plants. The fungal partner forms a network of hyphae that extends into the soil, enhancing the plant's ability to absorb water and nutrients. In return, the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates produced through photosynthesis. This mutualistic relationship is crucial for the growth and survival of many plant species, as it significantly improves their nutrient uptake efficiency.

Ecological Roles

Lichen plays a vital role in ecological succession, particularly in areas where primary succession occurs, such as volcanic terrains or glacial retreats. Lichen is often one of the first organisms to colonize these barren landscapes, breaking down rocks and contributing to soil formation through the secretion of acids. This process gradually creates a suitable environment for other plants to establish themselves, paving the way for a more complex ecosystem to develop.

Mycorrhizae, on the other hand, are essential for the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems. They form a vast underground network that connects plants, facilitating the exchange of nutrients and information between individuals. This network, known as the "Wood Wide Web," allows plants to communicate and share resources, improving their resilience to stressors such as drought or nutrient deficiencies. Mycorrhizae also play a crucial role in carbon cycling, as they contribute to the storage of carbon in soils, helping to mitigate climate change.

Benefits to Partners

Lichen provides several benefits to its partners. The fungal component offers protection to the alga or cyanobacterium, shielding it from harmful ultraviolet radiation and desiccation. Additionally, the fungal hyphae create a network that efficiently absorbs water and nutrients from the environment, enhancing the availability of these resources for both partners. Lichen's ability to survive in extreme environments also allows it to occupy niches that would be inaccessible to either the fungus or the photosynthetic partner alone.

Mycorrhizae offer numerous advantages to plants. The fungal hyphae extend far beyond the reach of the plant's roots, exploring a larger soil volume and accessing nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable to the plant. This increased nutrient uptake allows plants to grow more vigorously, improving their overall fitness and competitiveness. Mycorrhizae also enhance the plant's resistance to pathogens and help buffer against environmental stresses, such as heavy metal contamination or soil acidity.


Lichen exhibits an incredible diversity of forms, with over 20,000 known species worldwide. These species vary in color, shape, and growth habit, ranging from crustose lichens that tightly adhere to surfaces, to foliose lichens with leaf-like structures, and fruticose lichens that form upright, branching structures. This diversity allows lichen to occupy a wide range of ecological niches, from tree trunks and rocks to tundra and even the fur of animals.

Mycorrhizae are also highly diverse, with estimates suggesting that around 90% of all plant species form mycorrhizal associations. There are two main types of mycorrhizae: ectomycorrhizae and arbuscular mycorrhizae. Ectomycorrhizae are commonly associated with trees, forming a sheath around the roots and extending into the surrounding soil. Arbuscular mycorrhizae, on the other hand, penetrate the root cells of a wide range of plants, forming intricate structures called arbuscules. This diversity of mycorrhizal associations reflects the adaptability and importance of these relationships in various ecosystems.


Lichen and mycorrhizae are remarkable examples of symbiotic relationships in nature. While lichen consists of a fungus and an alga or cyanobacterium, mycorrhizae involve a partnership between fungi and plant roots. Both relationships have significant ecological roles, with lichen contributing to primary succession and mycorrhizae enhancing nutrient uptake and plant communication. The benefits provided by lichen and mycorrhizae to their partners are diverse and crucial for their survival and growth. The incredible diversity of lichen and mycorrhizae species further highlights the adaptability and importance of these relationships in various ecosystems. Understanding and appreciating these attributes can deepen our knowledge of the natural world and inspire further research into the intricate connections that shape our planet.

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