Washed-Up Alien Balls Make Washed-Up News Headlines

“Scientists were baffled…

“…visitors from outer space or earthlings?

“Many are thinking: extraterrestrial.


Every horrid, ad-cluttered website and bimbo anchor−led morning news show broadcasted and rebroadcasted the same tired lines after many small, green balls floated on to the shores of a Sydney beach last weekend.

This is despite the fact that said baffled scientists and viewers alike had seemingly put an end to the matter, explaining that the balls were most likely a rare type of living green algae.

The attractive, lush green balls hardly need the Martian-origin hype. They are nearly perfectly circular, the strange and beautiful result of a process called aegagropilious. It is thought that the free-living algae form with the rolling motion of the waves.

I had my own first encounter with Aegagropila linnaei—or a marimo ball (毬藻), as they are called in Japan—at the office. Two small, soft orbs submerged in water inside an adorable glass container. My boss told me she hadn’t watered them in over two years since receiving them as a gift from a student.

Marimo balls (one cut in half) at the office

Marimo balls (one cut in half) at the office

After doing some basic research on the Japanese moss ball (although this name is misleading, as marimo is unrelated to moss), I got permission to cut one in half to allow the dormant chloroplasts to form two new balls. In situ, marimo ingeniously receive light on all sides as a result of aegagropilious. Ex situ, and to summarize, the balls failed to reform out of neglect, which I blame solely on uncooperative coworkers.

Although marimo can be seen on the shelf in malls and larger supermarkets here in Koriyama, the algae ball has been a protected species for nearly a century, and there have been reports of their disappearance from an Icelandic lake, perhaps due to pollution. Unfortunate news for such a natural wonder.

Long Live That What is Dying

A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.

—Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow


Koriyama is tumbling headlong into Fall. There’s been a perceptible, dooming chill in the air, and a few trees have switched on their brights in response. The W word was even mentioned recently.

Winter is Coming Forecast

But before everything freezes over and life goes to pot, the autumnal months mean rice harvesting time, and maybe a hopeful one for farmers in the Fukushima prefecture. In August, the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations (ZEN-NOH) announced that rice exports from Sukagawa – less than 15 km from Koriyama and some 80 km from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant – would resume.

The mere 300-kg shipment, which officials assured had passed the government safety standard of 100 becquerels per kilogram, was sent to Singapore. Some English-language Singaporean websites reported that the shipment sold out within a couple of days.

Rice fields on the outskirts of Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture, Japan

Rice fields on the outskirts of Koriyama, Fukushima prefecture, Japan

All seems very promising, but there is still a host of problems to be dealt with for other farmers in the prefecture. In the months following the earthquake and subsequent nuclear plant disaster, rice producers sought to tackle the radiation problem by simply scraping off the top layer of soil, a practice still being carried out today in many of Koriyama’s playgrounds. One student spent his holiday doing the same for his parents’ garden.

Other methods, including using the mineral zeolite to absorb radioactive cesium and increasing tilling depth to release/remove contaminated soils, have met with some success, yet not on a large or significant scale. Compound these obstacles with the level of trust I’ve perceived from local Koriyamans, the good news slightly loses its edge.

What is promising, though, is the recent work being done on gene transplantation, in which researches have used a carbon-fixing enzyme to speed up photosynthesis in the tobacco plant. An implication of this work could be increasing crop yields worldwide and particularly in India, which has recently had its own issues in rice cultivation.

Salem, MA bookstore (2010)

Salem, MA bookstore (2010)

That being said, it will be years before these schemes start to germinate. For now, I’m content to spend my final days in the sun sipping hot spiced wine and cider and taking in an old Steve Reeve’s movie. Hallowe’en is upon us.