The orange goo that took over the shore of a remote Alaskan village is actually a mass of fungal spores — not microscopic eggs, as scientists at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration first believed.
But researchers are not yet sure whether this particular type of rust fungus is one of the 7,800 species of rust fungi that have already been identified. For one thing, its spores have unusual spines covering their surface.
"At this point, the best identification we can give to as the origin of these spores is a rust fungus," says Steve Morton, Ph.D., who works in the NOAA lab in Charleston, S.C., that conducted the full analysis. "The spores are unlike others we and our network of specialists have examined; however, many rust fungi of the Arctic tundra have yet to be identified."
Samples of the orange substance were sent to labs at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries facility, which initially determined that the goo was actually a mass of microscopic eggs, and to NOAA's National Ocean Service Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research in Charleston.
Scientists at the South Carolina facility who analyzed the microbiological phenomena with electron scanning microscopes and other equipment "determined that the substance is consistent with spores from a fungi that cause rust," according to a NOAA press release.
NOAA says that the disease "infects only plants, causing a rust-like appearance on leaves and stems. Rust fungi reproduce to infect other plants by releasing spores which disperse, often-times great distances, by wind and water."
The agency says it will release more information about the fungal spores as its Analytical Response Team continues to examine the samples sent from Alaska.