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It’s not a horror sequel - the Blob in space is actually there for science

By Elizabeth Rayne
Blob Study Photos

The Blob was a thing from outer space that landed on Earth, but there is another blob that spawned on Earth which just rocketed into space.

This blob isn’t going to terrorize your local movie theater. It is Physarum polycephalum, a type of slime mold, which is sort of alien in itself since it is neither plant, animal, nor fungus. Slime molds are technically amoebas that can react to what is happening around them. Their way of “thinking,” if you can call it that when no brain is involved, is the reason they hitched a ride on NASA’s recent NG-16 commercial resupply mission when it launched (and SYFY was there).

Slime molds are so weird that studying them in space could reveal previously unknown things about how organisms from Earth adapt to microgravity, which explains why biologist Audrey Dussutour of the French National Center for Scientific Research in Toulouse, France, decided to literally send some out of this world.

“Being a unicellular organism, P. polycephalum is an ideal model organism to study the effect of microgravity at the cell level,” Dussutour tells SYFY WIRE. “Its rich behavioral repertoire combined with its large size make it a fascinating model system. It is also easy to cultivate and observe.”

Yes, this thing can actually get as big as the onscreen Blob that came from the ‘50s and was revived in the ‘80s, as in tens of feet squared. It just spreads out into what looks like an almost neon green splat as it grows, consuming bacteria and fungi, as opposed to turning into a bulbous pink glob of stuff that devours human beings. The only thing they have in common is that they are both slimy. It’s probably doubtful that the fictional monster could heal itself, solve problems instead of creating them, or boast upwards of 700 sexes like a slime mold, either.

Liz NASA Blob

Dussutour thought the ESA-backed experiment was also ideal for introducing kids in Europe to the weirdness of both space and an Earthly organism’s reaction to nearly zero gravity. Just “slime” should get their attention. So will the way it seeks out food and makes sense out of mazes despite lack of a brain or any kind of nervous system. For one week, observations on how the behavior of P. polycephalum changes in microgravity will be beamed down to Earth, all over Europe, for junior high and high school-aged students to watch how bizarre things can get.

Never mind that it doesn't resemble us at all — this life-form has more things in common with humans than anyone looking at a glob of green protoplasm would have ever thought.

“Slime molds are eukaryotic organisms like us, and display many features of animal cells and could serve as an interesting model system to study the effect of microgravity on cells,” Dussutour says. “For instance, the actin and myosin (proteins involved in muscle contraction) in P. polycephalum resemble those of the human muscle cell.”

There is as much actin in this slime mold as there is in a human muscle cell. Since actin is also involved in motion, that could explain at least part of why it can feel around its environment and figure out things we would otherwise never fathom it could. Something sort of creepy about actin is that it is the most common protein in the muscle cells of eukaryotes, organisms whose cells have a nucleus that contains all their DNA. Prokaryotes are more primitive single-celled forms of life that have no nucleus or any other structures with a membrane.

So we are in the same category as P. polycephalum as far as being eukaryotes. What that also means is that if their cells often act like animal cells such as ours, then seeing what happens to them in space could tell us more about ourselves in microgravity. Their ability to contract allows them to move at a few fractions of an inch per hour. Dussutour predicts that what will be affected most by a zero-G environment is contraction and movement, which makes sense since human muscle cells atrophy in space and a study further looking into that was also sent up.

“We know that microgravity induces a decrease in the contraction period,” she says. “Knowing that the velocity and contraction rhythm determines the motor response of the system, so we can expect the motility of the slime molds to be affected.”

Slime molds are also thought to be predictors of how dark matter behaves because of how their filaments spread out, but that’s a different horror movie.

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