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Examining a Lichen under a School Microscope

What we will be examining for this microscope activity is a fascinating kind of plant (or a couple of plants) that can prove to be educational to observe by students and children. High school and even elementary students can participate in this microscope experiment. All we need to have is a low power school microscope and a sample of lichen.

Lichen is a plant or union of two plants—the algae and the fungus. Algae are simple plants that can manufacture its food. Under a low power stereoscopic microscope, algae look like a string of green beads that can sometimes be spiral or mat shaped.

Fungus, on the other hand, lives an existence that is opposite that of algae. Fungi are parasites. It does not have leaf-green granules that are responsible for food manufacture that is why it lives by feeding on other plant’s food. When we look at the “roots” of a fungus , we will see that it has a mat of white threads. This network of threads absorbs the food of its host. If you want to look at it more closely, you can use a low power stereo binocular microscope. The fungus, to compensate for the lost of its food manufacturing ability, can absorb huge quantities of water while also having the capabilities of controlling it.

Lichens are composed of these two plants but this time around, the fungus is not a parasite to the algae. Instead, they live a symbiotic relationship wherein they benefit one another. While the fungus does feed on the algae’s manufactured food, it provides the algae with water with its absorbent qualities. Water is essential to the algae and without it, the algae will not survive. It is therefore important for the algae and the fungus to coexist with one another because they depend on each other for survival.

If the student has a field nature microscope, they may want to bring it with them on the field trip so they can study the lichen. A field microscope, sometimes called a portable microscope, has it’s own battery powered light source, or can work without the need for electricity. It is portable, small, and can easily be packed in the student’s backpack for the hiking trip. Generally, the field nature microscope would be considered a low power stereoscopic microscope, as would be needed for looking at lichens found on the field trip. However, some field microscopes may be of the high power compound type.

Lichens can be found in all parts of the world and the most common is the tree lichen. This type of lichen looks like a gray inlay on the bark of old trees and can also be found as flat and spreading patches on rocks. Another common lichen is the parmelia and they also grow flat on rocks in gray or green mats with brown fruits. Another form is the cladonia which looks like a miniature shrub.

Once the student obtains one of these lichens, we look for its dented and curled margins that give the lichen the appearance of a leaf. This is the thallus and it is the vegetative part of the plant that is expandable. We will cut a thin section through the thallus and soak it in water if it is too dry. This will also bring out the greenish color more clearly and make the sample more flexible.

Under a low power stereo dissecting microscope, we will see the fine white threads that are tangled with one another. These threads searches for moisture while anchoring the lichen to its place. We will also see that there are bits of green bodies that are scattered within these threads. These are the algae and they go where the threads go.

We can also take a look at the lichen cladonia under the stereo binocular microscope. These plants are actually very beautiful to look at under the microscope. They have microscopic receptacles that are either shaped like a cup or saucer in bright colors. These are the spore cases and the fungus’ reproductive part.

Examining lichens under a student low power stereo microscope can actually be very educational especially since lichens have economic importance. Lichens are used for the manufacture of some pigments like litmus. These are also fed to reindeer and are made into bread in some countries.

The students and teacher alike will find it one of the interesting and rewarding microscope lessons to use lichens in their microscopic study. They may either take the field trip, and bring the lichen specimens back into the classroom to view under the stereoscope, or they may use their field microscope on site. The added adventure of taking the students hiking in the woods to find lichens, and viewing them immediately with their field nature microscope is a truly exciting experience that students will not forget. It may stimulate their minds to want to become botonists, zoologists, biologists, microbiologists, or a host of other scientific related persons.

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