• Le 04 July 2019

It can’t be seen, touched or smelt. It's not considered as either an animal or a plant. Yet, this living thing is much more intelligent than we thought. The “blob”, a single cell made up of million upon million of nuclei, intrigues biologists because of its capacity to adapt and ability to live and survive in its natural environment. A research team at the laboratory Unité de Fonctionnalité et Ingénierie des Protéines (UFIP – Université de Nantes / CNRS) studies its functions in order to improve our understanding of its biological mechanisms, which are closer to our own than you might think...


Although the blob is used in many different ways and for different reasons, in Nantes, it is notably studied to understand its epigenetic regulation to see how its genome, which is to say the ensemble of its genetic material regulates itself as it proliferates. The blob is only a few centimetres high but can reach several metres in diameter. It is a structure with complex organisation and a genome just as complex that needs to be organised within all its nuclei.

"The blob regulates itself to live and survive in its environment. It decides to switch on or off this or that gene", explains Christophe Thiriet, head of the epigenetics team at the laboratory Unité de Fonctionnalité et Ingénierie des Protéines (UFIP). This system of proliferation and regulation could be similar to the behaviour of cancer cells in man.

Cloning the epigenetic genome

The Nantes research group studies the way in which the blob proliferates and how it manages to "replicate" its genetic material as it grows. "When the blob proliferates, when it multiplies, it also multiplies all of its genetic material. For us, the question is to know how a cell manages to transfer epigenetic information as it clones itself", says Christophe Thiriet. To understand the mechanisms of this “epigenetic copying”, the researchers are testing the blob in the laboratory using systems designed to perturb it, but without imposing selective pressure.

"We manipulate these perturbations to try to find out how it proliferates and, above all, why this happens." underlines Christophe Thiriet. "Does proliferation slow down ? Does the cell die ? And if it does, then why does this happen?" Although there are no immediate applications for the blob, the understanding it can give us of the mechanisms of epigenetic transmission will have many applications in medicine, agronomy and biotechnology. The blob still has many surprises in store for us.