One of the strangest plants on the planet Earth is called “slime mold,” a single-celled plant which normally lives on the moist forest floor that when under stress, builds a kind of “space ship” which it then launches away from the danger. We human beings may eventually have to do the same thing.

Usually the cells of Dictyostelium discoideum live separately. But when their food dries up, they band together and form a multi-cellular tower designed to save their children. Researcher Joe Noel wanted to figure out how they do it.

It turns out that, under stress, the individual cells send out a signal that scientists call DIF-1, which other cells pick up and pass along. When they receive this signal, they gather together to form their craft, which is an entirely new sort of creature, made from a group of cells which were formerly individual creatures (and will be again, when they reach their destination).

Is there anything NASA can learn from this?

David Shiga writes in New Scientist that space researchers are designing space suits that are partially inspired by nature. They will repair themselves, generate electricity (like an electric eel) and kill germs. NASA hopes to have them ready for our return to the moon in 2018.

Art credit: Mike Austin from a photo by Rob Kay

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