The International Space Station is preparing to host an atypical tenant, “blob,” an unclassifiable organism that fascinates biologists, which will enter orbit on Tuesday for use in an educational experiment led by French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.
From Earth, several hundred students between the ages of 8 and 17 will reproduce the experience starting next fall with this strange organism, which is neither an animal, nor a plant, nor a mushroom. Students will be mentored by the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) in cooperation with the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
The ‘blob’, called ‘Physarum polycephalum’, consists of a single cell and several nuclei. It looks like a thin yellow mass, which has neither a mouth, nor legs, nor a brain. Yet it eats, grows, moves (very slowly) and has amazing learning abilities.
Its nuclei can divide at will and an organism can go into a state of dormancy (without dying) by dehydration. In that state, called “sclerotia,” several pieces of “blob” will enter space, aboard an International Space Station supply cargo ship.
When the astronauts rehydrate them, in September, four sauces about 0.5 cm long, 400 km from Earth, will wake up in Petri dishes, and they will comply with two protocols: one will test the position of “blobs” when they are deprived of food and the other will provide food for the lucky ones (oat flakes) .
The goal is to observe the effects of weightlessness on that body. “Today, no one knows what behavior it will be like [situación de] Microgravity: in what direction will it move, if it will take the third dimension upward or indirectly … ”asked Pierre Ferrand, professor of life and earth sciences at CNES, one of the engineers of the project.
“I’m curious to see if it would evolve into plumes,” said bubble specialist Audrey Dussautour, director of research at the CNRS Animal Cognition Research Center in Toulouse, southern France.
On Earth, thousands of cut “blob” samples of the same strain (LU352) as their space congeners, will be distributed to 4,500 schools, lyceums, and high schools in France.
“More than 350,000 students will ‘touch’ the dot,” said Kristen Koresher, the space agency’s head of educational projects.
Between the end of August and the beginning of September, teachers will receive a group with between 3 and 5 sclerotia and a tutorial to carry out the experiment.
When Thomas Pesquet wets “blobs” in space, students will do the same in class. After that, several observational sessions will be held to compare the behavior of samples taken from Earth with those sent to space.
Since the “dot” calls into question some scientific theories, it is expected to lead to many discussions in class. “For example, in cell theory, which is one of the oldest cell theory, it is said that each cell divides into two cells. With the ‘point’, this does not work, because it is one cell that grows without dividing,” says Pierre Ferrand.
Another oddity: “While most organisms use two sexes, the ‘dot’ is over 720! It is an organism ‘with drawers’ that tells us that life consists of many original elements,” adds the professor.
The “point” appeared on Earth more than 500 million years ago, before animals. For a long time it was considered a fungus, but then it was removed from that kingdom and since the 1990s it has become part of a subclass of amoebae to which amoebae belong.
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