Friday Fellow: Witch’s Jelly

ResearchBlogging.orgby Piter Kehoma Boll

I wonder how many people can say they have a bacterium that reminds them of their childhood. Well, at least I can say that I have.

When I was a boy and started to know about the amazing world of living beings that fill our planet, I spent most of my time outdoors looking at every small corner of the backyard and nearby woods in search for interesting lifeforms. And one that always caught my attention was a strange brownish green gelatinous mass that appeared on the ground in the rainy season.


Have you ever found something like that on the ground? Photo by flickr user gailhampshire.*

At first I thought it was some species of green alga, but was unable to identify the species. Many years later I finally found out what it is, a colony of cyanobacteria called Nostoc commune and commonly known as star jelly, witch’s butter, witch’s jelly and many other names. It is found worldwide, from the tropics to the polar regions.

As in other cyanobacteria, the witch’s jelly is formed by a colony of unicellular organisms connected in chains. Those are embedded in a gelatinous matrix of polysaccharides that gives the colony its jelly appearance.


Chains of Nostoc commune in the matrix of polysaccharides seen under the miscroscope. Photo by Kristian Peters.**

During dry periods, the colonies of witch’s jelly dessiccate and become an inconspicuous thin layer on the ground. They may remain in this state for decades, maybe centuries, until the ideal conditions come back.

In some places, especially Southeast Asia, the witch’s jelly is consumed as food, being a traditional food in the Chinese Lunar New Year.

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Lipman, C. (1941). The Successful Revival of Nostoc commune from a Herbarium Specimen Eighty- Seven Years Old Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 68 (9) DOI: 10.2307/2481755

Tamaru, Y., Takani, Y., Yoshida, T., & Sakamoto, T. (2005). Crucial Role of Extracellular Polysaccharides in Desiccation and Freezing Tolerance in the Terrestrial Cyanobacterium Nostoc commune Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 71 (11), 7327-7333 DOI: 10.1128/AEM.71.11.7327-7333.2005

Wikipedia. Nostoc commune. Available at: < >. Access on September 19, 2016.

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*Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

**Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Filed under Algae, Bacteria, Friday Fellow

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