Give Now  »

Indiana Public Media | WFIU - NPR | WTIU - PBS

Noon Edition

Amoebic Rescue Squad

What comes to mind when you think of an amoeba? A simple, brainless creature? A microscopic, shapeless blob? A single cell that has the unusual--yet ultimately unsexy--ability to reproduce by dividing itself in two? Turns out that amoebas have a lot more going on than any of us humans ever knew--up until now.

Researchers have discovered communication and teamwork among a particular type of amoeba called Entamoeba invadens. Here's the story. Asexual reproduction may sound like a simple feat, without the social turmoil involved in sexual reproduction, but dividing oneself in two isn't always easy for an amoeba. Sometimes the two halves get stuck, and can't quite sever the last, thin connection between them.

By gazing very closely at entire communities of Entamoeba invadens under the microscope, the researchers found that when one amoeba has trouble dividing, it actually sends out a chemical SOS to other amoebas, which rush to the scene. Once there, members of the amoebic rescue squad put their own bodies on the line, wedging themselves between the two halves of the amoeba-in-distress. The added leverage and force of the amoebic rescue squad helps the struggling amoeba to complete its division successfully.

What motivates the squad to rush to the aid of the amoeba-in-distress? Could there be such a thing as altruism among amoebas? No one knows for sure, but the researchers speculate that the rescue team may receive a thank you feast, consisting of an easily digestible sugar, from the grateful, successfully divided amoebas.

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science