A blob in space

In the spring of 2021, on the occasion of the ALPHA mission, European astronaut Thomas Pesquet will join the ISS aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft for a 6-month stay. During this expedition, our Frenchie will bring several experiences with him. Among them, he will take “blobs” with him.

The blob, what is it?

the blob

Four blobs will keep Thomas Pesquet company on board the International Space Station. Among his other scientific activities (sleep study, sports in space, etc.), he will conduct several experiments on this mysterious organism.

This creature is neither an animal, nor a fungus, nor a plant! But what is it exactly?

Physarum polycephalum , commonly known as a "blob", is a primitive single-celled organism. It belongs to the vast class of myxomycetes comprising about 10,000 species, long considered a fungus, wrongly. Discovered in 1970, this creature is at least 500 million years old. It is composed of a single giant cell, devoid of a brain and nervous system, but capable of moving, learning, and transmitting. The blob measures barely 10 micrometers at the beginning of its life, it can reach beyond 10 square meters in the laboratory.

“It ages like all organisms, but if you put it to sleep, even for years, it wakes up with new youth! explains specialist Audrey Dussutour, CNRS research director at the Center for Research on Animal Cognition.

Its cruising speed is 1 cm/h, it can reach 4 cm/h when hungry. The blob moves by contracting and releasing the liquid (cytoplasm, the intracellular liquid) in its veins, because it does not have a motor limb like the human with its legs. Every thirty minutes, the direction is reversed, and this is how it advances. Its receptors react to the presence of light or food, which tells it the direction in which it should move.

If you place a blob at point A and food at point B, you can be sure that the blob will find the shortest path among thousands of other possibilities. The mucus deposited in its path acts as a spatial memory, like an electrical network, its arms made up of mucus allowing it to transmit information. The blob is a social being , it knows how to adapt and transmit information. If you put the blob in front of a natural barrier, like salt, it will try to pass, if that's the only way it will get used to it, adapt and eventually pass. If the “experienced” blob meets a “novice”, it will transmit the information directly to him and the novice blob, once faced with an obstacle like salt, will know how to face it without having faced it himself.

In an experiment at Hokkaido University, scientists placed a blob on a map of Japan, where food was laid out at major cities.
The blob then spread as efficiently as the real Japanese rail network, and even more efficiently, because it connected less often the points already sufficiently served.

japanese railway blob experiment

Special guest from the ISS.

Does this organism behave differently in space? What are the effects of microgravity and solar radiation on its development?
It is to answer his various questions that astronaut Thomas Pesquet will study the evolution of the blob in space conditions on board the ISS.

According to Audrey Dussutour, in the absence of gravity, we could observe the blob forming 3D structures.

blob without gravity

the blob box

In order to raise young people's awareness of space issues, the CNES Youth Education department is giving 2,000 classes the opportunity to reproduce the experiment conducted by Thomas Pesquet, in order to compare the results obtained in space and those on earth. (#RaiseYourBlob)

the Blob will be delivered in the “sclerotia” state, that is to say dehydrated. He will be rehydrated in the resort and in the classrooms. Regularly, students will be able to compare their results with those of the International Space Station using photos/videos. They will have access to a dedicated website and Facebook group to share their results and compare them, ask questions, etc.

Find out how to take care of your blob with Audrey Dussutour:

video audrey dussutour taking care of her blob

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