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Montana Scientist makes Global Discovery

Montana Scientist makes Global Discovery

Photo credit: Tim Wheeler, Montana lichenologist who is part of Toby's team of specialists and an amateur photographer.

Toby Spribille's journey from a young boy home schooled in Montana to an esteemed scientist whose work is the cover story for the July 29, 2016 issue of Science magazine is remarkable...in many ways. He and his team of specialists have made a discovery that changes what was believed about lichens since their discovery 150 years ago.

It started with his passion for science and lichens. Lichens look like plants, but actually are two organisms, or so it was believed, that form one: a fungus partnering with an algae or a bacterium. They include the gorgeous orange, yellow and green decorations you see on rocks and trees and the light green or black hairy masses hanging from trees that the deer love to eat.

When Toby was very young he wanted to know about all the plants. However, he lived in northwest Montana, where the number of species and diversity of lichens is much greater than other types of plants. He thought, therefore, that lichens likely told a bigger story about what is happening around them. “For example,” he says, “you can tell where rough grouse drum because of the lichens that grow where they've been. Because lichens are very sensitive to changes in their environment they can be a species to watch for changes in temperature and precipitation.”

After completing home schooling in 1995 Toby worked nine years as a botanist at Murphy Lake Ranger Station collecting all kinds of plants on the Kootenai National Forest. He identified, verified and mapped quite a few new species and sensitive plants including lichens. His lack of formal education was not an impediment to his ability to conduct himself professionally and with an obvious fervor. He credits Forest Service personnel, such as Christie Ferruzzi, for seeing his potential and encouraging him to develop his skills as a biologist.

His home-schooled education didn't provide the transcripts required by universities in the United States, so he looked to Europe where he'd learned that some universities might waive that requirement. His fluency in German pointed him to the University of Gottingen in Germany, which, based on his interview, agreed to admit him. The rest, as they say, is history. Toby completed his undergraduate and post-graduate work and now holds a PhD specializing in lichenology.

Montana always had a special place in his heart. In 2011 he joined the lab of John McCutcheon, a symbiosis specialist at the University of Montana. Symbiosis is the state of two or more organisms living together with each benefiting the other such that they cannot live apart. The word was coined 150 years ago specifically to describe what had just been discovered about lichens. Lichens were found to be a fungus living symbiotically with a photosynthetic partner, an algae or a bacterium.

From the experiments performed by Toby and his team of specialists he concluded that in a large number of lichen species there is a third partner, a yeast.

You can't over-emphasize the importance of this discovery. Toby and his team have essentially blown the lid off what has been believed about lichens since their discovery 150 years ago. It has implications that are far-reaching into other fields of science partially because it emphasizes that still are learning about the world around us. And that's ok.

Lichens are incredibly reactive to minute environmental changes. Toby calls them “an indicator species or barometer of change.” Because they are not studied as intensely as many of their larger counterparts, it is possible to lose a lot of them before they are even missed and thus not see subtle changes to the environment. Toby hopes to change that through his work and by encouraging more emphasis on studying lichens in science classes of school children.

What we learn about our world and how we apply that knowledge gives us the ability to make good decisions for our future. Toby and his team are passionate about doing their part and we look forward to future developments about lichens and to how that knowledge is applied across the board.

Alice Elrod

About the Author: Alice B Elrod is a longtime promoter, supporter and contributor to our community. I love living in this glorious valley. There are so many people here who ardently strive to help out and it's a pleasure to pitch in when I can. Writing for visitNWmontana gives me a chance to know more about our community lets me invest some creative time in getting the word out about how wonderful it is to call this place home. I also have the privilege to be involved in the community by working with the Creative Arts Council, Recycle Eureka and through my chiropractic practice, Elrod Chiropractic.

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