In this study, we demonstrate the first in situ detection of usnic acid (UA) in selected species of the lichen Cladonia, using FPA-FTIR imaging and Raman microscopy. Fruticose lichens present a variety of defensive mechanisms, one of which is the production of UA. This polyketide secondary metabolite, produced by certain lichenized fungi, has a protective function for the lichen that includes a strong absorption in the ultraviolet range. Upon confirming the distinct spectral signature of UA in lichen tissue, we mapped its distribution in Cladonia arbuscula, Cladonia uncialis and Cladonia sulphurina tissues. Spectroscopic images were obtained from cryosectioned lichen fragments embedded in media and from hand-sectioned fragments that were media-free. UA was present in the pycnidia, and younger walls of C. arbuscula and C. uncialis, the spore-producing region of a C. uncialis apothecium, and in both the younger and older soredia of C. sulphurina. The localization of UA in lichens is an important precursor to future work that includes the identification of the gene cluster responsible for its biosynthesis. Our results show that FTIR and Raman imaging can be an effective way to study the distribution of natural products in lichens with micron-scale precision.
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