Toby Spribille Busts Myth that Lichens were Plants

Toby Spribille fell in love with science at a young age, but he lacked resources to nurture his desire. Brought up in a Montana trailer park and home-schooled by what he now calls a “fundamentalist cult”, he longed to break away from his roots in order to get a proper education.

Spribille would have dubbed it as a joke had one told him in 1995 that he would one day belie a scientific idea that has been the basis of textbooks for one and a half century.

At the age of 19, he started working with a local forestry service and made some earning within a few years. The amount was sufficient for him to leave his home, but not enough for him to join a university in America. So, he planned to move to Europe.

“Thanks to my family background that I could speak German, and I had heard that many universities there charged no tuition fees. My missing qualifications were still a problem, but one that the University of Gottingen decided to overlook”, says Sprirbille. “They said that under exceptional circumstances, they could enroll a few people every year without transcripts. That was the bottleneck of my life”.

Spribille gained expertise on organisms, particularly lichens, throughout his undergraduate and postgraduate work, something that had grabbed his attention during his time in the Montana forests.

Unlike Spribille, anybody normally tends to ignore lichens, which grow on logs, cling to bark, smother stones. Lichens look messy and undeserving of attention at first glance but when inspected closely, they appear astonishingly beautiful and look like flecks of peeling paint, or coralline branches, or dustings of powder, or lettuce-like fronds, or wriggling worms, or cups that a pixie might drink from. They’re also extremely tough.

It was Spribille who worked on the theory that lichens were not plants, but composite organisms consisting of fungi that live in partnership with microscopic algae.