Categories / Article

A blob in space

In Spring 2021, on the occasion of the ALPHA mission, the European astronaut Thomas Pesquet will join the ISS on board the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for a six-month stay. During this expedition, the French astronaut will try out various experiences. Among them, he will take a closer look at “blobs”.

A ‘blob”, what is it?

le blob

4 blobs will keep company to Thomas Pesquet on board the International Spatial Station. Among his others scientific activities (sleep study, sport in space…), he will lead several experiences on this mysterious organism.

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

Le The Physarum polycephalum, popularly known as the “the blob”, is a primitive unicellular organism. It belongs to the class of myxomycetes, which includes around 10,000 species. They were mistakenly long considered as mushrooms. Discovered in 1970, the blob is at least over 500 million years old. It is made of a unique giant cell, has no brain, no nervous system, but is able to move, learn and convey information. It barely measures 10 micrometres at the beginning of its life and it can reach beyond 10 square meters in laboratory conditions.

‘It ages like every organism, but if it falls asleep, it wakes up with renewed youth!’ , explains the specialist Audrey Dussutour, CNRS Research Director at the Research Centre on animal cognition.

Its cruising speed is of 1 cm/h, it can reach up to 4 cm/h when it is starving. The blob moves by contracting and releasing the fluid (cytoplasm, the intracellular fluid) in its veins, as it does not have any limbs to move like humans with their legs. Every 1 and a half minute, it is the other way around, and that is how it can move. Its receptors react to the presence of light or food, which indicates to the blob in which direction it should move.

If you put a blob on point A and there is food on point B, you can be sure that the blob will find the shortest way among the thousands of ways possible to get to it. The blob uses the mucus that he leaves behind on his way as a spatial memory, like an electricity network. His arms made of mucus allow him to convey information. The blob is a social creature,he knows how to adapt (and convey information). If you put the blob in front of a natural barrier, like salt, he will try to go through it. If there is no other way around, he will get used to it, will adapt and eventually get past it. If an “experienced” blob meets an “inexperienced” blob, he will convey the information to the latter. The “inexperienced” blob will then be able to get past the salt barrier, if he ever has to face it.

In an experiment conducted at the Universy of Hokkaido, scientists put a blob on a map of Japan, where the food was displayed on the big cities of the country. The blob expanded as effectively as the real Japanese railway network, and even more effectively, because it created less repetitive connexions between the points which were already well served.

expérience blob réseau ferré japonais

The special guest of the ISS

Is the behaviour of this organism different in space? What are the effects of microgravity and solar radiations on its development?
The astronaut Thomas Pesquet will study the evolution of the blob in space conditions on board the ISS to find answers to these different questions.

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

blob sans gravité

la blob box

In order to raise awareness of space-related issues among young people, the ‘Youth Education Service’ of the CNES (the French ‘National Centre for Space Studies’) gives the opportunity to 2000 classes to reproduce the experience carried out by Thomas Pesquet, in order to compare the results obtained in space with those obtained on Earth. (#EleveTonBlob, literally #RaiseYourBlob).

The Blob will be delivered in the state of ‘sclerotium”, that is dehydrated. It will be rehydrated in the station and in the classes. Regularly, the students will be able to compare theirs results with those of the International Space Station thanks to photos/videos. They will be given access to a website and a dedicated Facebook group, in order to share their results, compare them, ask questions, etc.

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

video audrey dussutour s'occuper de son blob