O International Space Station will have an unusual tenant, the “bubble“, one body unclassifiable that fascinates biologists. On Tuesday, it will enter orbit to be used in an educational experiment led by French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.
From Earth, several hundred students between the ages of 8 and 17 will replicate the experience starting next autumn with this curious living being, which is neither animal, plant, nor fungus. Students will be guided by the National Center for Space Studies (CNES), in collaboration with the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
How is the blob, the unicellular organism that surprises everyone
The “bubble”, called “Physarum polycephalum”, is composed of a single cell and several nuclei. It looks like a fluffy yellow mass, it has no mouth, no legs, no brain. And yet he eats, grows, moves (very slowly) and has amazing learning abilities.
Their nuclei can divide at will and the body can go into numbness (without dying) from dehydration. It is in this state, called “sclerotia”, several pieces of “blob” will enter space, aboard an International Space Station supply cargo ship.
When the astronaut rehydrates them in September, four sclerotia of about 0.5 cm will awaken 400 km from Earth in Petri dishes and will comply with two protocols: one will test the attitude of the “bubbles” when they are deprived of food and the another will provide food for the luckiest ones (oat flakes).
The Microgravity Dilemma
The goal is to observe the effects of weightlessness on that body. “Today, no one knows what behavior it would have in a microgravity situation: in which direction it will move, whether it will take the third dimension upwards or obliquely…”, asked Pierre Ferrand, professor of Life and Earth Sciences at CNES, one of the project’s architects .
“I’m curious to see if this becomes pillars,” said blob expert Audrey Dussutour, research director at the CNRS Center for Research in Animal Cognition in Toulouse, southern France.
On land, thousands of copies of “bubble” cut from the same lineage (LU352) as their space counterparts, will be distributed among 4,500 schools, secondary schools and secondary schools in France. “More than 350,000 students will ‘touch’ the ‘bubble'”, commented Christine Correcher, head of educational projects at the space agency.
Between the end of August and the beginning of September, teachers will receive a kit with 3 to 5 sclerotia and a tutorial for carrying out the experiment.
Blobs on Earth and Space
When Thomas Pesquet moistens his “bubbles” in space, students will do the same in the classroom. Subsequently, several observation sessions will be carried out to compare the behavior of Earth specimens with those sent to space.
As the “blob” questions some scientific theories, it is expected to lead to a lot of discussions in class.. “For example, in cell theory, one of the oldest, it is said that every cell divides into two cells. With the ‘blob’, that doesn’t work, because it’s a single cell that grows without ever dividing,” says Pierre Ferrand.
Another oddity: “Although most organisms use two sex types, ¡the ‘blob’ has more than 720! It is an organism ‘with drawers’ that tells us that life is made up of an infinity of originalities”, adds the professor.
The “bubble” appeared on Earth more than 500 million years ago, before animals. For a long time it was considered a fungus, but later it was removed from that kingdom and since the 1990s it has been part of the amebozoan subclass, to which the amoebas belong.