Audrey Dussutour: The blob

When Audrey is asked why she is studying the blob, here is her answer:

“When he decided to study aplysia, everybody laughed at E. Kandel, and look where he is now! A Nobel prize winner who changed neurosciences. This is the same for several other studies that lead to major discoveries. So wait for 20 to 25 years and I’ll tell you if it worsed the deal!”

The blob: origins

texas article

In the 70’s, in Texas (it has to happen in Texas right?), a woman has found a weird thing in the middle of her garden. Her first reflex was to sparse it with a garden tool. The day after, the “thing” was back and had doubled in size. The lady then decided to put several products on it in order to kill it but it kept on growing. Finally, our dear friend decided to call the police, what else to do? And policemen to fire on the “thing”, that ain’t suffered the situation. Then the firemen, still nothing. After a bunch of tries, the thing has gone, with no trace. what did happened? We’ll answer the question later. But the main thing here is that a myth was born.

Of course, some story like this one found out an echo in the Hollywood industry and a movie gave its name to this “thing” that became: the blob!

be aware of blob

But what is a blob?

This is not an alien despite some could say. This is not a fungus even if it looks a lot like, not a plant and certainly not an animal. This is a myxomycete! Ok, you’ll tell me to stop using these rude words and start to write English.

So let’s rephrase:

3.5 billion years ago, the first cells appear on earth, these are the procaryotes or cells without a nucleus. 2 billion years ago, the first cells with a nucleus or eucaryotes. Then evolution did its work and here we are us Homo Sapiens. we are made of thousands of billions of cells among which almost all are specialized. You’ll tell me ok but where is the blob in this? The blob is not a lot of things, but it is a cell. It does not has a cell but is a cell. A single cell that contains several nuclei. Our Homo Sapiens family is 300 000 years old. The blob is 2 billion years old and its family is made of 1000 species. Finally, a blob’s cell can be as large as 10 square meters. Moreover, the blob can be of any colour:

Among all these species, Audrey is working on Physarum polycephalum. Here are a few of its characteristics:

Its speed is around 1 to 4 cm per hour.

it has a veins network in its cells that contains a liquid that is similar to our blood. Contrarily to our veins system, the blobs’s “blood” can go backwards this is what we call the blob’s pulse.

What does it eat?

Bacterias, and mostly mushrooms. The blob also loves oak flakes (These days in the lab around 1 Kg per day). The blog is a little complicated in its diet. Indeed, he likes oak flakes but not powder. Blob’s size doubles almost every day so you should pay attention to how you store it and how you feed it unless you would have some surprises.

A blob can be dried and without any food and stay like this for up to two years. Then rehydrating it could kind of come back to life. It can stay like this around two years and when it comes back, it is “younger” than before its kind of hibernation.

How does it reproduce?

What a good question, one cell, several nuclei, how does this work? In the human race, there is basically two genetical genders, men and women. In the blob’s world, this is quite… different. There is at least 720 sexual types. I say at least because some are discovered regularly. This can make things quite easier as he got 719/720 chances to find a compatible partner where we have 1/2. 

Then, the cell grow and grow, and at some point, a critical size is reached and there could be a lack of food or several other reasons. This will make the blob generating spores that will sparse.

Study on blob’s learning capacities:

Yes, Audrey Dussutour is a neurosciences engineer after all, not a blob nurse!

First experiment:

The blob has to cross a gel bridge to to to its food. 2 conditions:

  1. Gel bride contains salt (blobs hate salt).
  2. Regular gel bridge.

The blob facing the salt take five more times to cross the gel (10hrs vs 2 hrs) and reach the food. After few trials, blobs start to accommodate to salt and realize this is not that bat for them (they have food in the end after all). This process is called habituation and is a kind of learning procedure. You can go here for more and here for even more.

Once this was done, Audrey asked herself if blobs can learn from each other by simple merge. Imagine, you train a blob with salt and you merge it with an untrained blob. When you do so, you can see a kind of vein in between the two blobs and the one who used not to like salt has suddenly the same performances than the one who used to like so. This way chains ups to 4 blobs can be created.

The blob an ignored gourmet:

Yes because Audrey is French, and especially because she is curious, she asked this question: « Would a blob be able to select his food based on the nutrients it contains? » In other words, she baked different oatcakes (blob’s favourite food) with different levels of nutrients that are more or less optimum to blob’s health. Then she had the blobs closing in between all these proposed cakes disposed equidistantly of him. During all trials, the blob was able to select the most improved composition for him and go to it.

How does a blob « moving»?

Yes indeed, the blob is a cell and it is not very intuitive to imagine a cell moving right? Inside the blob (this works for the types of cells) there are little tubes that look like veins. In its veins, there is a liquid moving back and forth. This movement will make pressure on the veins when he is going somewhere and create a pulsation impression.

When the blob does not find anything while exploring its environment, it leaves mucus on his way. This is why if you surround a blob by mucus, he will first « think » he already explore everything and thus it will take him a lot of time to found out the food outside the mucus.

While doing all these experiments, 3 types of blobs were distinguished:

American; Australian; Japanese.

Because we can merge, split and do a lot of things with blobs, several experiments has been done.

Merging: Let’s take a blob, splitting it in two and putting them in the same environment with food.

    1. American together: the first who find out the food keep it, doesn’t share, doesn’t merge.
    2. Australian: first a merge then let’s go find food together and share.
    3. Japanese: let’s go to eat together and then merge.
    4. American & Japanese: There is a discovery phase, then a nucleus war fire and the ending blob always have an American behaviour. Some call this Pearl Harbor revenge…

Toshi Nakagaki: He is Japanese and works a lot on blobs.

He made an experiment in which he put cold on a blob exactly every 30 minutes. As for us, blobs don’t like cold and after a few trials, it looks like blob anticipate cold appearance.

He also made a very cool experiment by putting a blob at a capital location (Tokyo let’s say) and its favourite dish at major cities locations. By exploring the blob create a network between the cities that is a lookalike of a train network. There are slight differences in between the two and network specialist mainly found that blob’s solution is more efficient than the actual train network.

Labyrinth: the blob is set in the middle of the labyrinth and oat flakes are put at each exit. The mucus is found almost everywhere but in the end, the main trace left correspond to the most optimum way to go out.

Knowing all this about the blob we can wonder why he ain’t had invaded us already? A simple answer to this question is that it has a very dangerous predator: the slug.

Last but not least, we kept a question answer for the end: what did happen to our Texas blob?

Now you know the blob, the answer is quite an easy one right? It just reached a size that guided him to reproduction and sporulated.

If you want to know more about the blob and about Audrey, I invite you to go to these websites:

Audrey’s website & facebook

In the starting blob (fr): a blob’s tutorial by Audrey.

Improbable research

Creative research institution: Toshi’s lab page.

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