Fig. 1 Poster of the terrible 50’s horror movie that is The Blob. Image from: Wikipedia
The 1950’s were arguably the peak era for bad science fiction horror movies. There are the Godzilla movies, War of the Worlds, and a really bad Frankenstein remake. But the movie that sticks out most to me is The Blob, which is about a slimy mass that arrives from space. As you can probably guess from the movie poster above, The Blob subsequently proceeds to creep around and digest everything in its path, gaining size and strength until it has eaten the whole town.
As crazy as this idea may seem, there is in fact a small inkling of truth to this movie; some kinds of microbes will swarm to form a blob-like mass which migrates over land. But eating whole people – not so much. While some microbial “blobs” grow larger through the absorption of food, like The Blob, others form when solitary microbes huddle together and produce reproductive cells as part of an altruistic starvation survival strategy.
Fig. 2 Look familiar? Slime molds such as the “dog vomit” mold shown here often appear as if from nowhere. The slime mold above is a plasmodial or acellular slime mold, meaning it is close to being one giant bag of cell contents. Image from: Wikipedia
These microbial “blob-formers” can either be eukaryotic (with the genetic material enclosed in a nuclear membrane sack, like us and plants) or prokaryotic (like bacteria, with the genetic material possibly bundled, but not held in a fully formed and closed nucleus). An example of a eukaryotic Blob is pictured in Figure 2, known as a “slime mold.” You may have noticed them appearing as if from nowhere on the surface of mulch around plants. The name slime molds is misleading because mold is an informal name for fungi (the causative agent of moldy bread), but slime molds are not fungi. In fact, slime molds have diverse origins and share more genetic material with other non-slime organisms than with slime molds .
Slime molds are bizarre because a common amorphous exterior can be derived from either a cellular or acellular interior. The acellular (“plasmodial”) ones are like The Blob in that they don’t have complete cell membranes. As a consequence, the insides of the cell (cytoplasm) can flow over large parts of their body. You can think of this as an alternative to our circulatory system; instead of blood, the cells mobilize their insides to rapidly move essential molecules to other parts of its “body.”
My favorite slime molds are cellular molds such as Physarum. When faced with starvation, these cells release and become sensitive to the signaling molecule cyclic AMP (cAMP). Other cells detect this signal, produce more signal themselves, and “join” the party, migrating to create a swarm of cells (Fig. 3). This migrating swarm or “slug” eventually forms a reproductive structure in which most of the cells will form a tower for a small subset of cells to disperse from. Those lucky cells at the top of the tower become haploid spores – hardy cells with only one copy of their parent’s genome – and disperse into the environment. These cells then germinate into amoeba-like cells and develop flagella (tails) which enable them to swim towards and merge with another amoeba-like cell. This is the interesting world of slime mold sex. Only select cells get to reproduce while the tower-forming cells are essentially sacrificed, making this a great organism to study cooperative reproduction.
Fig. 3 Watch slime mold cells find each other, form “slugs,” and create reproductive towers. (Video: John Bonner, Princeton University)
There are many other strange creatures you can find that look like “Blobs”: Globsters and jellyfish which wash up on the beach, jelly fungi which sometimes appear on people’s lawns, and of course the classic Halloween treats, frog eggs. While any of these could be the next star in a terrible science fiction movie, if you find something odd and “Blob-like” out in nature, there is almost certainly an expert who can help you figure out where it came from (see note below). While these organisms have minimal threat to humans, they can still be a little terrifying to encounter in real life!
Fig. 4 Another kind of blob – a dead jellyfish washed up on a beach. When I saw these on the beach, I used to think people had put jello all over the beach for children like me to jump in. Image from: Wikipedia
Note: If you need help identifying something strange on plant or soil, most states have extension services with experts who can help. For example, the University of Massachusetts offers plant pathogen and insect identification services, and if you are in the neighborhood you can usually just drop in and someone will help you.
- Nandipati, Satish CR, Kari Haugli, Dag H. Coucheron, Edward F. Haskins, and Steinar D. Johansen. “Polyphyletic origin of the genus Physarum (Physarales, Myxomycetes) revealed by nuclear rDNA mini-chromosome analysis and group I intron synapomorphy.” BMC Evolutionary Biology 12:166 (2012)
More From Thats Life [Science]
- You are a fish
- Things That Glow Pink in the Night: Why do some animals have fluorescent coloration under ultraviolet light?
- When You Call a Fish a Frog
- Who’s Got the Biggest Genome of Them All?
- The Biology of Booze ft. Tequila
- Dying Tomatoes, Healthy Kittens, and the EMP500: Why you should care about the International Society for Microbial Ecology
- The Purebred Poodle Problem
- Let It Glow
- I’m Likin’ That Lichen
- Celebrate the Holidays with a Decorative Parasite
- Sleeping One Hemisphere at a Time
- Through the Mycologist's Hand Lens: Deceptive Decomposers
- Life Science in Outer Space!
- 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Rats
- Watermelon Snow
- Critter Candid Cam
- Three Cool Plants in Hot Places
- A parasite only a moth could love
- Telling tales of plants and their names
- The Colorful World of Primate Hair
- Where do fish go in winter?
- You Scratch My Back and I’ll Scratch Yours
- Alien Microbes: How studying hyperthermophiles can help us discover life on other planets
- Life, the universe, and everything: Dreams of being a biophysicist
- Bug Sleuth – One Entomologist’s Mission to ID a Mysterious Swarm of Wasps
- Horny and Hungry: The Dilemma of Sexual Cannibalism
- Who’s who? The elusive difference between butterflies and moths
- Tuberculosis - A Romantic Disease?
- Ode to a Few Arachnids
- Monotropa uniflora - This wildflower is pretty wild
- Eavesdropping in the Animal Kingdom: Sneaky Creatures Just Trying to Get Ahead
- Trypanosomes - A Weird Pathogen You Haven't Heard Of
- A Beautiful 9/11 Tribute, but a Fiasco for Migratory Birds
- Cats can have AIDS, too.
- Part 2: Does catching Pidgeys help you notice Pigeons? Interviews with Pokémon Go Researchers
- Biodiversity in my Backyard: Encounters with Pidgeys and Dratinis, Part 1
- Fins, Limbs, Rays, and Digits – A Beginner’s Guide to Terrestrial Living
- Fins, Limbs, Rays, and Digits – A Beginner's Guide to Terrestrial Living
- Five things that really stink about the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
- Tricks but no Treats - An Orchid’s Guide to Making a Fool of Your Pollinator
- Tracking the lost years - where do baby sea turtles grow?
- Posing as a Bird Mama: the adventures of a researcher-turned-bird-parent
- Hot moves and sexy sons · When Boys Become Men By Dancing
- The hungry caterpillar in real life
- Mantis Shrimp Vision - Seeing in Secret Code
- When It Comes to Bird Beaks - Size Matters
- Is your gut trying to kill your resolve? · Mind over microbe
- Recent talk of walls in the media has brought up a lot of emotions, but what do walls do in nature? · When a Wall is just a Wall
- Bees are more than buzzing insects around you · May the Bees Be With You: Maintaining the Sweet Balance in Life
- Neither a toad nor a worm · Nematodes: The super microscopic animal!
- Snap! Flash! Bang! Find out how ocean-dwelling pistol shrimp fire bubble ‘bullets’ to stun their unsuspecting prey. · How Pistol Shrimp Kill with Bubbles
- Who needs males after all?
- Ecology and Behavior of Woodchucks · Opposition Research on My Garden’s Greatest Nemesis
- Vision in Jumping Spiders · Watching Your Every Move
- Slimed and Consumed - The Blob is Real!
- The Evolution and Ecological Impacts of Cats · Lion in Sheep's Clothing
- What happens when frogs have to compete for acoustic space and a chance to be heard? · Struggling to be Heard - Competition in a Complex Soundscape
- Think Genghis Khan and Napoleon were the most successful invaders? Think again. · Invasive Species and Invasion: Part 1
- When, and how, terror birds invade
- 8 Reasons Plants Are Amazing
- Too Clean for Comfort · How our obsession with cleanliness might be hurting our health
- Stop, evaluate, and listen - serotonin surges when a female is present
- No Teeth, Long Tongue, No Problem - Adaptations for Ant-eating
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - Predators, Parasitoids, and Parasites
- How our microbiome affects our health and vice versa · If you don't care for your microbiome, you might want to start
- Finding new ways to grow bacteria to progress science · Culturing the Least Cultured Members of Society
- Hit the Road Jack
- What Happened to Your Nose?
- Building better plants - Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution
- Love Songs for Nobody - Birdsong in Winter
- We know we get infections from time to time. Why does this happen? · The Evolution of Virulence
- How cheese rinds may be a valuable tool for microbial discovery · The Unseen World – On Cheese?
- Find Me Where the Wild Things Are
- A commentary on how to make science more ‘clickable’ · You won’t believe this simple trick to tell if your coral is healthy or not
- Some species hide in plain sight, but scientists have ways to suss them out · Cryptic Species Hide in Plain Sight
- Minuscule Hitchhikers Pinch a Ride · Creature Feature - Pseudoscorpions
- World Fish Migration Day 2016!
- Walking With Giant Anteaters
- Why we should care about sea turtles · When A Sea Turtle Balanced Earth
- More ›