The Old Creature for the Future Food: Nostoc

Two and half years ago my friend taught me how to find, harvest, process, and cook colony of cyanobacterium or blue-green algae from nature. The local name of the colony of microorganism is star jelly, witch’s butter, mare’s eggs, fah-tsai or koxianmi in Chinese. The scientific name of the species is Nostoc commune.

Actually, Nostoc commune is bacteria not algae. Nostoc commune forms dark green gelatinous mass with other colonies growing nearby and its taste a bit like Judas’s or Jew’s ear or jelly fungus or black mushroom. The name of Nostoc was coined by Paracelsus (1493-1541), who was pioneer in “medical revolution” and the “father of toxicology”.

This bacteria colony is able to survive in extreme conditions in polar regions, humid and arid areas. Nostoc doesn’t have chlorophyll but contains photosynthesis pigment. Nostoc commune can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, therefore can live in locations where no nitrogenous compounds are available from their substrate.

Nostoc commune is eaten as salad or stir fry and can be one of the constituents of the vegetarian stew Buddha’s Delight. It has been reported by the scientific research that consumption of cyanobacterium or blue-green algae may be beneficial as anti-inflammatory agent and it is good for diet. I have been trying to grow this pre-historic creature in the field but with no success yet.

A review of Nostoc as a new and rich source of novel bioactive compounds with pharmaceutical potential was done by Nowruzi et al. (2018). It was reported that genus Nostoc produce dozens pharmacologically active compounds as antiviral, antitumor, antibacterial, anti-HIV, and a food additive. Furthermore, Nostoc is composted of abnormal amino acids, which aided them to survive in varied and highly competitive ecological niches and they can be cultured in the lab.

It seems that Nostoc commune needs a very special niche or microhabitat and microclimate in nature to grow and multiply with binary fission. The artificial habitat may not support well the full life cycle of this colony of bacteria. How can it be that I have ever seen field with a full of Nostoc in nature, but they can’t be cultivated easily in the artificial conditions at the field yet?

There are a big risk of the pollution and global warming with unpredictable weather to this bacteria colony. If this very special kind of blue-green algae community is getting rare and disappear due to the human disturbances, it will be no time to grow and show them to the young generation in the artificial environment.

The photo above is the colony of Nostoc commune that I took 2.5 years ago at the country side at Wooster, Ohio. Sure, that the nature is preserving them, so I can visit again the same spot, find the Nostoc field, and taste it again the amazing texture and benefits of the pre-historic food on my visit this year in late Summer. The photo can be zoomed to see the detail. Permission of using this photo is needed by the author.

– Bintoro Gunadi

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