This autumn we had an opportunity to host an Art/mosphere Baltic 2016 art and science workshop – it was a two-day long event for high school students, run as a collaboration between seplutė (a biochemist taking care of our biolab) and a comics artist Akvile Magicdust.

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We chose lichens as the topic of the workshop since they are very sensitive to environmental pollution and their molecules could have valuable medical properties, including novel antibiotics, cancer drugs and other therapeutics. Unfortunately, they are yet largely understudied by scientists, and misunderstood by the public.

We all met at Technarium on the morning of the first day. After a brief introduction, seplute talked about the biology and the potential uses of lichen. Lichen are a symbiotic organism, extremely resistant to draught, cold and lack of nutrients.

Then we got ready for the field trip. We took a local bus and went to a nearby forest called Markučių parkas.

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Once there, we tried to collect as many different species of lichen as possible. We visited the tidy park area, an area next to a small lake as well as the wild pine forest on the nearby hills. By this time, we had everyone install the iNaturalist app which allows geotagging field samples and adding their pictures to an online database where the samples can be identified and used for biodiversity research. Here is the project we created: http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/art-mosphere-2016-lichens

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We immediately saw that there are nowhere as many lichen on the trees as one might see in a large old wood in the countryside. The majority of the pines had no lichen on their trunks at all. Most lichen are indeed very sensitive to air quality – it was a rather somber realization when we saw the lack of them with our own eyes.

As a contrast, these lichen had been collected by seplute at Švenčionių wood, which is far away from any large pollution sources:

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This yellow lichen is relatively insensitive to pollution – that’s why one can see it on trees and stones in the center of a city as well:

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Moss (green) and lichen (blue) together on a tree trunk:

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Contrary to what most people think, this is not a lichen – it’s a fungus!

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We dubbed this one “the Chernobyl black”.

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And could not decide whether this one was a lichen of a fungus, so we took a sample of it as well:

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A squirrel’s stash among lichens:

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These are lethally toxic death cap mushrooms (we didn’t pick them):

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Once we went back to Technarium, we had a self-catered lunch – the participants made hot sandwiches themselves – and went into the biolab!


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We had a short safety briefing, donned the protective gloves and got to work.

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The task for the first day was lysing the lichen cells and getting rid of solid pieces of lichen from our DNA samples. First we acquainted ourselves with the protocol of the whole procedure (we used a similar one):

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Those interested were free to use the microscopes in the lab to get a closer look at the lichen:

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Then we used several mortars to grind the lichen samples, mixed them with lysis buffer (NaCl buffer with SDS and poured the solution into Eppendorf tubes:

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Then, we transferred 300 µl of the solution into a fresh tube and added 300 µl of chloroform, which is meant to separate different parts of the cells (lipid, proteins and nucleic) from each other. After spinning the tubes down we were supposed to get 3 different phases of cell contents, like this:

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However, the phases separated very poorly and the top phase (supposed to contain DNA) was not clear at all, as it is supposed to be. In fact, all the tubes looked like the phases have been inverted instead!

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After some confusion and fiddling around we realized our borrowed centrifuge was too slow! (only 2.6K RPM, when we needed ideally 13K RPM!). Nevertheless, we were very excited to see the different contents of the cells separating after a rather simple procedure.

Since it was the end of day 1, that was where we left them. Later that night we borrowed a faster centrifuge, and were ready to finish separating DNA the next day!

[The workshop was supported financially by the Swedish Institute.]