Witch’s Butter

27 Sep

Nostoc commune:  icky gross slime, or emerald carpet?


(Note—the term “witch’s butter” is applied also to other slimy things, mostly fungi.  It is not exclusive to today’s cyanobacterium.)

Today John, George, and the Florida Association of Environmental Professionals Treasure Coast Chapter combed the wet regions of Jonathan Dickinson State Park for grassy plants.  About a million species to enjoy.  The pine woods vistas and wildflowers were gripping as always. Blue Curls were at their best.

Blue Curls by John Bradford.

Blue Curls by John Bradford.

Now look on the ground below that fetching wildflower, there’s something even better.  What grabbed me with the most gusto today were waves of green jello on the otherwise bare scrubby soil.  We’re talking about huge bacterial colonies of the  blue green bacterium (cyanobacterium) Nostoc commune.   Some observers erroneously call these blue-green “algae.”  And some get upset when the “algae” befoul their pristine lawn of pride.

Nostoc (by GR, John is drawn to beauty, but I like the lowdown and slimy)

Nostoc (by GR, John is drawn to beauty, but I like the lowdown and slimy)

This is one mighty germ.  It is photosynthetic growing in microscopic strings of cells in colonies as big as dinnerplates.  This species fixes nitrogen in special air-tight cells called heterocysts, seen as the larger light-colored cells in this photo link microscope view.

When you transform atmospheric nitrogen gas into forms plants can use, that’s fixed nitrogen.  Legumes and some other plants do it with the assistance of certain bacteria.   The symbiotic bacterial helpers in some cases, such as in Cycads, are species of NostocNostoc is the “algal” partner in some lichens as well, but today you have Nostoc living proudly off the leash.  If this nitrogen-fixing mat isn’t nitrogenizing the hungry scrub sand I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!

Nostoc in JD Park

Nostoc in JD Park

You could walk through the scrub for years in dry weather and never spy Nostoc, except maybe as an inconspicuous dry crust we crush while seeking interesting things.  This organism can dry out to a mere nothing for months, probably many years, and eventually bust out into its idea of glory when wet and ready.  Then dry times resume and bye bye for now.

The world is full of odd symbioses, and Nostocs (including today’s species? perhaps not) have an unusual relationship with a tiny midge prone to lay its eggs in the Nostoc jelly for a safe haven and nourishment.  What the fly offers the Nostoc is odd, if not adequately studied:  the larva seems to induce changes in colony shape with an enhanced grip on its substrate and probable enhanced photosynthetic production.  If I had nothing else to do, I could happily spend tomorrow searching for the larvae before the present Nostoc patches go back into hiding.  Want to go play golf tomorrow?  No thanks, I’d rather look for maggots in bacterial slime blobs.

Nostoc commune and related species are global and like arid places.  They tolerate blistering heat, arctic freezing, blazing sun, and extended drought.  No surprise they prompt research to probe the molecular biology behind happy life in extreme environments.   Nostocs make so much fatty gel they’ve raised the eyebrows of biofuelophiles.  They are so responsive to wet-dry cycles they cause research on environmental gene control.   Nostoc reacts to extreme sun exposure with a UV-screen not known in any other living thing.

That UV protection is perhaps linked to an example of why we don’t eat the weeds, even if other people do.  A recent article in the Journal of Ethnophamacology  described the traditional consumption of Nostoc commune in Peru.  Yummy good–but the fly in the ointment is a neurotoxic amino acid possibly linked to neurodegenerative disease.  There’s always something.

Maybe it is no surprise how these close relatives of the oldest fossils known on earth survive nasty conditions perhaps resembling the primitive Earth when cyanobacteria ruled.  Back when we were an almost-uninhabited planet.  Like Mars.

Hmmmm, too bad Mars is so dry these days.  Maybe a little green Martian Nostoc would come forth with a good honest wetting.

Mars Rover footprint, or John's tripod print?  You decide.

Mars Rover footprint, or John’s tripod print? You decide.


Posted by on September 27, 2014 in Nostoc commune



18 responses to “Witch’s Butter

  1. theshrubqueen

    September 27, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    No golf for you – only slime blobs, still laughing. Thanks, my father was a professor and it reminded me of something he might have said.

    • George Rogers

      September 27, 2014 at 5:08 pm

      Thanks Shrub Queen!

      • theshrubqueen

        September 27, 2014 at 5:34 pm

        George, when is the winter natives class, I just found I have Hymenocallis latifolia (a boatload) in my yard…???Amy, the Shrub Queen

      • George Rogers

        September 28, 2014 at 11:00 am

        Amy, We think we’ll start the winter class in January. Would you like to be on the tentative roster? I wish I had Hymenocallis in my yard. What a fine thing to find. What I find in my yard is construction debris from I-95, concrete chunks, rebar, etc. Wonder how the spider lily wound up there in your zone—prior owner?

  2. Uncle Tree

    September 27, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Guess what, George? My horoscope for today says: This will be a time of new activities and new encounters, some quite unexpected, that will generate both excitement and personal growth.

    Okay, I get the growth part, but choosing green slime over green greens is not my idea of excitement. Why, this gnostic caustic Nostoc goo looks like something a Martian superhero would leave in their tracks. Stay safe now, and keep an eye out.

    Thanks for another interesting lesson you two! (I vote for the Mars Rover print) Cheerz, UT

    • George Rogers

      September 27, 2014 at 5:08 pm

      UT, The exciting unanticipated new encounter may come later today, and be a doozy. My idea of excitement these days is a new flavor at the Dairy Queen.

  3. theshrubqueen

    September 28, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    Yes, I would like to be on the roster – Thank you. I found a big chunk of Hymenocallis in the front planter when we bought the house, thinking it was Amaryllis I divided it and planted at least 50 linear feet , 2′ o.c.- so, now I have a boatload and will be happy to share some with you.
    To say the former owners were not gardeners would be an understatement, their featured plant was nutgrass.

  4. friedova

    September 28, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Thank you George and john for the Nostoc knowledge. I will now look out for this lovely bacteria in Eastern Ontario.

    • George Rogers

      September 28, 2014 at 7:01 pm

      Pretty sure they are in Ontario though I have spent tons of time there but never noticed. I miss Algonquin Park!

  5. George Rogers

    September 28, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    Sometimes you’re lucky. My former owners left substandard “home made” poorly done repairs all over the place—still finding them. I’ll take flowers any day. We’ll put you on the January list. Can you e-mail me your full contact info? I hate to put my office e-mail out there too conspicuously, or to have you put contact info here publically, but I think you know how to reach me. If not, say so here and I’ll give you a hint.

  6. Martin

    September 29, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Ah, cyano – the bane of reef aquarists worldwide. A pox on you, brother George, for admiring that s#!t.

  7. FeyGirl

    September 29, 2014 at 9:38 am

    I always wondered what this was… THANK you! Love the name, too. 🙂

    • George Rogers

      September 29, 2014 at 12:03 pm

      Fey Girl, Thanks for commenting. Who’d ever guess it is a bacterium? We could use it to frost Devils Food Cake…oh yea, toxic toxins. Better leave it to the witch’s brew.

  8. George Rogers

    September 29, 2014 at 11:57 am

    Martin, Well, yea, that was on Friday. Today looking at my poor “challenged” saltwater tank, I’ll adopt your standpoint.

  9. Steve

    October 3, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    George, you are one of the few who could write a compelling blog about cyanobacteria. Gotta love the name Witch’s butter, now I can put a name to that stuff. I’ve seen it thriving on gravel roof tops. If only you could tell me how cheesytoes got its name.

  10. George Rogers

    October 4, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Right—that cheesytoes thing worries me. Are you sure we really want to know?

    • Martin

      October 7, 2014 at 6:38 am

      Hey, Mudfish don’t care…

      caution – from The Naked Scientist:

      • George Rogers

        October 7, 2014 at 10:04 am

        Martin, Eureka. You are a cheesy genius. Looks like you “nailed” it. Now I’ll have to go smell Stylosanthes hamata along the side of our parking lot at work.


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