The One Cell Planning Commission

by Jennifer Frazer on January 31, 2010

Efficiency in Motion: A wild slime mold clambers over soil and moss looking for bacteria and protists to eat. Note the dead leaf for scale. / CC BY-NC 2.0 Not for commercial use.

Behold, the artful amoeba itself — a slime mold. In this case, it is Physarum polycephalum, the lab rat of plasmodial slimes. Scientists in Japan have been leading the world in creative slime mold research, demonstrating about 10 years ago (when I was first learning about these creatures) that slime molds could solve mazes. If you’ll recall, slime molds can also remember. We’re talking about an oversized bag of multinucleate cytoplasm here, folks. (Cytoplasm being, of course, everything inside a cell membrane, and multinucleate because it contains lots of nuclei, or DNA packets) So it was no surprise to me to see the latest juicy morsel of slime mold research last week, once again from Japan, showing that not only can slime molds efficiently design rail networks, they can do it for a budget comprised of a $2.99 box of oats. Planning engineers, prepare for Japanese outsourcing.

The slimes managed a decent reproduction of the actual Tokyo rail network when scientists put a piece of the mold where Tokyo would be inside a Japan-shaped corral with oat flakes placed at the location of major cities. To simulate mountains or other barriers that slime molds have no way of knowing about, they illuminated portions of the map. Slime molds, like vampires, trolls, and college students, hate light. In just over a day, the slime mold had taken in the lay of the land and laid down its solution to the problem. The similarities were striking. For a map of the actual Tokyo rail network versus a slime-mold-designed network, see here (scroll down).

Slimes do it by spreading out in all directions, moving on from areas without food and pumping more cytoplasm into the ones that do. For a great video of the slime mold doing its thing in the experiment, see here.

So you see, slime molds would never miss that left turn at Albuquerque. They’d take both turns. : ) Boringly, the scientists designed a computer program to replicate the effect that they hope could help design mobile and computer networks without human help. I don’t understand why they don’t just stick with slime molds, though. “Will work for oats — prefer nights” makes for a pretty attractive employee in my opinion.

By the way, the “oat flakes” they talk about in this study are just regular rolled oats. Though you might be tempted to think the slime molds are eating the oats, they are not. They eat the bacteria that live on the oats. Yes, your oats have bacteria on them. No, this is not cause for panic. In spite of what the makers of Chlorox would have you believe, germs are a normal part of our world. More on that another time . . .

To see how most slime molds fit in to their section of the tree of life, go here and look for “Amoebozoa”.

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Slime Mold Gives Thanks for Mexico-Shaped Oat Flakes
November 25, 2010 at 4:54 am

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