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Refuge Notebook: Kenai's namesake smut

Posted: August 22, 2013 - 3:34pm

In the May 2013 issue of the journal IMA Fungus, Dr. Marcin Piatek of the Polish Academy of Sciences described a new kind of smut from the Kenai Peninsula. This unique smut fungus had been found by Canadian botanist James Calder in Palmer Creek Valley in 1951, but it was not recognized as a distinct species until now.

The reader may wonder what smut fungi are and why they matter. A grain farmer could tell you: smuts can cause large losses in corn, barley, and wheat.

Smut fungi are named for the black, sooty spores produced by their fruiting bodies. The over 1,400 species of smuts parasitize a wide variety of plants, mostly grasses. Smuts of grasses and sedges generally do not kill their hosts. Instead, they hijack the plant’s reproductive system, converting seed heads into spore factories.

Spores of corn smut begin their infection by growing between cells of the corn plant, usually on young leaves and kernels. As the disease progresses, the fungus penetrates cells of the host, eventually filling most of the infected tissue with fungal cells. These areas swell, forming large, conspicuous gray to black galls so that an infected ear of corn will be bursting with swollen, distorted gray galls instead of the usual yellow kernels. Mature galls disintegrate into a dark, sooty powder of new spores, each gall producing about 200 billion spores. These spores disperse on the wind and may remain viable in the environment for years.

Interestingly, the galls of corn smut are not only edible, but are a high-value crop grown commercially for the Mexican market. Said to have an earthy, mushroom flavor while retaining a hint of raw corn, this food was enjoyed by the Aztecs and still goes by its Nahuatl name of huitlacoche.

In our area, smuts are most conspicuous on sedges where their life cycle is similar to that of corn smut. Take a good walk in a wetland in the late summer and, if you look at sedge flowers, you will likely find some individuals where some of the seeds have been replaced by distended, black, sooty galls. The galls persist on the plant through the winter. The following spring, the spores are spread to flowers of young host plants by wind and insects. I have no idea whether or not these galls and their host sedges are edible like huitlacoche on corn.

The Kenai’s newly described smut fungus, Anthracoidea kenaica, parasitizes Pyrenean sedge (Carex micropoda), a common sedge in alpine areas of the Peninsula. The main differences between the Kenai smut and similar smuts are microscopic characteristics of the spores. Also, none of the closely-related smut fungi infect Pyrenean sedge. The new smut was named for the locality where it was originally found, but it is now also reported from Pribilof Island and British Columbia.

Matt Bowser serves as Entomologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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