It’s official: Humans are canceled. If we’re not intent on slowly destroying the planet, then we’re getting busy being downright nasty to each other online. But in a world increasingly devoid of human role models, there are some unlikely sources of inspiration out there.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
Enter The Blob—a yellowish chunk of slime mold set to make its debut at the Paris Zoological Park on Saturday. With nearly 720 sexes, and the ability to heal itself in two minutes if cut in half, The Blob (or La Blob, as it’s called in France) is surprisingly accomplished for such a simple organism.
And despite having no mouth, eyes, or brain, slime mold can remember things and solve simple problems. Impressive, considering that some humans reach political office without mastering most of these tasks.
Unsurprisingly, the Parisian slime mold has already captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world. Here’s why slime mold deserves your respect.
What Is It?
This is a tough one. For a long time, scientists thought that slime molds were a kind of fungus, since they had similar life cycles and seemed to like hanging out in the dark, damp environments favored by fungi.
Scientists now think that slime molds are closer to amoeba. And like amoeba, slime molds consist of a single cell and tend to move by reaching out little creeping arm-like limbs called pseudopods.
The Blob—or to give it its more formal name, Physarum polycephalum—belongs to a subset of slime molds known as plasmodial slime molds. These are made up of a single gigantic cell that contains thousands of nuclei, formed when lots of individual cells get together. These plasmodial slime molds are particularly useful for helping us understand how slime molds work because they are so large that it’s easy for scientists to observe and experiment with them.
What Tricks Can It Do?
The Blob is attracting a lot of attention because it has nearly 720 sexes. In Physarum sex is determined by a range of different genes that come in multiple variants. Slime molds reproduce by releasing spores that develop into sex cells, and for successful reproduction to take place then all that needs to happen is for two sex cells containing different variants of those sex genes to meet.
Slime molds can also heal themselves if split in two. Handy if they’re stepped on by a rogue fox while they’re exploring a fallen log in the forest. Despite these superhero-like qualities they generally stick to a low profile, preferring to snack on bacteria, yeast, and fungi found on decomposing plant matter.
So We’ve Got Nothing to Fear From the Blob Then?
You might beat a slime mold in a fight, but they could out-think you. Despite having neither neurons nor brains, slime molds appear to have memories and are able to learn new things.
Researchers at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research taught slime molds to enter areas that they normally would avoid because they contain toxic substances. This behavior was retained after a year and the wisdom could even be passed between different cells.
What’s odd is that slime molds seem to have acquired memory without having any of the normal biological components normally required for memories to form. It raises the question of how learning developed through evolution, and whether we need to widen our definition of cognition to include non-humans.
I’m Not Impressed. What Have They Ever Done for Us?
Maths. Slime molds have been used to solve a complex problem that is often used to test algorithms. The task is called the Traveling Salesman Problem, a classic route optimization problem that asks a computer to look at a list of cities and figure out the shortest route between them that also visits every city once.
When researchers from Japan’s Keio University gave the problem to a slime mold, they found out that even when the amount of cities was increased from four to eight, the time taken for the slime mold to solve the problem didn’t increase by anywhere near as much as they’d expect. Scientists think that slime molds’ ability to test new solutions and respond to visual feedback really quickly might help us develop even faster computers.
All Right, I Want a Pet Slime Mold. Where Can I Get One?
If you’re a fan of decaying tree stumps, you’re in luck. You can find slime molds all over the place, but they tend to be found in soil, lawns, and on the remains of fallen deciduous trees. One of the most recognizable slime molds is the so-called dog vomit slime mold, named after its distinctly unappetizing bile-like appearance.
Keeping your slime mold alive might be a challenge though. They’re sensitive to light are are fussy about moisture levels and hate caffeine. They also have a nasty habit of slowly creeping out of whatever container you might end up keeping them in, so watch out.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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