Lichens possess varying antimicrobial properties; and they have been shown to be active against a plethora of pathogenic microorganisms including bacteria, fungi and viruses. Lichens and lichen compounds have long been used by Native Americans, the Chinese, Europeans, Africans and the Indians as not just medicinal agents (because of the bioactive constituents that they inherently possess) but as important source of food, and for other industrial and economic purposes. The versatile and well-documented bioactive nature of lichen secondary metabolites often referred to as lichen acids is very promising for the development of potent antimicrobial agents. Lichens have been used since time immemorial for different medicinal purposes and this is due to the fact that their secondary metabolites (i.e., lichen acids) contain unique biologically active compounds that serve many antimicrobial purposes. These macro-fungi population (a community of fungi and cyanobacteria) have attracted the attention of researchers, industrialists and professionals in the medical and pharmaceutical industry because of the important bioactive compounds that they synthesize. The biological and/or antimicrobial activities of lichen secondary metabolites are numerous, and they include: antibacterial activity, antifungal activity, antiviral activity, anti-inflammatory activity, antipyretic activity, anti-herbivore activity and cytotoxic activity. These have been briefly summarized in Table 1 of this section. 


Table 1. Synopsis of antimicrobial activities of some lichens

LichenReported antimicrobial activityPathogenReferences
Parmelia perlata (L.) Ach.AntiviralYellow fever virus, polio virusEsimone et al., (2007)
Ramalina farinaceaAntiviralHIV-1, Respiratory synctial virus (RSV)Esimone et al., (2009)
Ramalina farinaceaAntiviralAdenoviruses, herpes simplex virus (HSV)Esimone et al., (2009)
Ramalina celastriAntiviralArenavirusFazio et al., (2007)
Caloplaca regalisAntibacterialGram positive bacteriaPaudel et al., (2008)
Usnea ghattensis (G.) AwasthiAntibacterialGram positive and Gram negative bacteriaSrivastava et al., (2013)
Roccella belangeriana (Awasthi)AntibacterialGram negative bacteriaDevi et al., (2011)
Caloplaca cerinaAntifungalFungiManojlovic et    al.,  (2005)
Rubia tictorumAntifungalFungiSame as above
Rhamnus frangulaAntifungalFungiSame as above


Lichen secondary metabolites possess antibacterial activity. They exhibit significant level of inhibitory effect on both Gram positive and Gram negative bacteria. Some lichens with antibacterial activity include those in the genus Ramalina, Parmelia, Umbilicaria, and Cladonia. Some available synthetic conventional antibiotics are not too effective for the treatment of some bacterial related infectious diseases owing to the growing level of antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria. Usnic acid, salazinic acid, stictic acid, and vulpinic acid are some examples of lichen secondary metabolites that have been effective to inhibit pathogenic bacteria effectively. Thus, lichen acids known to have sizeable antibacterial activities could serve as lead compounds in the development of novel antibacterial agents to contain the upward trend in bacteria resistance to some antibiotics.  


Lichen acids also exhibit antiviral activities against some human viral pathogens including respiratory synctial virus (RSV), herpes simplex virus (HSP), human papillomavirus virus (HPV), arenaviruses, and adenoviruses. Lichens exhibit antiviral activities aside other antimicrobial actions they express, and thus could be used as potential drug candidates for the development of novel antiviral drugs. Usnic acid and parietin produced by the lichen genera Usnea and Ramalina are some lichen compounds with antiviral activity.


Lichens possess antitumour or anticancer activity. They inhibit some malignant cancerous growth, and even cause apoptosis (programmed cell death) in other related tumours. Usnic acid is one of the widely studied lichen acids, and it has been found to be very effective in addition to other secondary metabolites to inhibit some human cancerous cell lines such as breast cancer cell lines and prostate cancer cell lines. Lichen secondary metabolites (especially usnic acid) have been found to effectively inhibit the cell growth and proliferation of some human cancerous cell lines. The reported apoptotic activity and anti-mutagenic effect of lichen secondary metabolites is promising in developing novel anticancer drugs.


Secondary metabolites of lichens also protect lichens against herbivorous invertebrates that usually feed on them. Lichens derive survival benefits from the secondary metabolites they synthesize as these compounds have the potential to ward off herbivores and other invertebrates that may want to prey or feed on them in their habitat.  


The secondary metabolites of lichens (for example, usnic acid) also possess antifungal activity against some fungal species. For example, usnic acid has antifungal activity against Candida albicans and Aspergillus species which causes candidiasis and aspergillosis in humans respectively. Usnea species, Calaplaca and Parmelia are some lichenized fungi with antifungal activities.   


The wide variety of antimicrobial activity expressed by secondary metabolites of lichens on other organisms including animals and microbes makes them putative composites for the development of novel and potent antiviral agents. Other reported biological activities of lichen secondary metabolites are antipyretic activity, anti-cytotoxic activity, and anti-inflammatory activity and antioxidant activity. The huge secondary metabolites produced by lichens may stand out to be the cure and answer to the growing demand of potent antimicrobial agents (inclusive of antibacterials, antifungal and antivirals) due to the pertinent and growing nature of multidrug resistant strains of pathogenic microbes now experienced in the health sector world over. Thus, it is critical to step up research towards harnessing some of these (undiscovered or yet to be tapped) good qualities of lichen secondary metabolites especially in the area of developing novel antimicrobial agents for therapeutic purposes. Aside their strong antimicrobial activities and application in the medical and pharmaceutical industry, lichens are also used as food or fodder, dyes and perfumes. Lichens provide their own food; and as a producer, they can provide food for other organisms in the ecosystem. Lichens can also serve as habitat for other organisms including insects, and other small invertebrates that may use lichen formation to camouflage from potential prey in their ecosystem. Though lichens are slow-growing in nature; lichen secondary metabolites holds sway to revolutionize healthcare delivery across the world in terms of their perceived antimicrobial properties which may hold the key for the discovery and development of better therapeutic agents. Lichens or lichen secondary metabolites also possess other biological significance as aforesaid which can be harnessed for improved healthcare delivery across the globe.

Further reading

Anaissie E.J, McGinnis M.R, Pfaller M.A (2009). Clinical Mycology. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier. London.

Baumgardner D.J (2012). Soil-related bacterial and fungal infections. J Am Board Fam Med, 25:734-744.

Calderone R.A and Cihlar R.L (eds). Fungal Pathogenesis: Principles and Clinical Applications. New York: Marcel Dekker; 2002.

Champoux J.J, Neidhardt F.C, Drew W.L and Plorde J.J (2004). Sherris Medical Microbiology: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. 4th edition. McGraw Hill Companies Inc, USA.       

Gladwin M and Trattler B (2006). Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple. 3rd edition. MedMaster, Inc., Miami, USA.

Larone D.H (2011). Medically Important Fungi: A Guide to Identification. Fifth edition. American Society of Microbiology Press, USA.

Madigan M.T., Martinko J.M., Dunlap P.V and Clark D.P (2009). Brock Biology of Microorganisms, 12th edition. Pearson Benjamin Cummings Inc, USA.

Stephenson S.L (2010). The Kingdom Fungi: The Biology of Mushrooms, Molds and Lichens. First edition. Timber Press.

Sullivan D.J and Moran G.P (2014). Human Pathogenic Fungi: Molecular Biology and Pathogenic Mechanisms. Second edition. American Society of Microbiology Press, USA.

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