Slime molds unite! (And also divide.)

You’re a slime mold, minding your own business as a little single-celled sluggy creature, crawling about on the forest floor, nibbling on the finest of rotting wood and leaves. Then the signal comes in. You feel an irrepressible urge to join your slime mold brethren. So you crawl over and JOIN THE BORG.

From there, your choices aren’t so great for an individualistic slime moldling. Depending on what species you are, you are either completely borg-ified or you die. If you’re a plasmodial slime mold, you lose your identity completely. Your cell walls break down and you become just one cell nucleus floating about in a vasty sea of cytoplasm. Millions of wee little slime moldlings have merged to become a giant single cell. That cell, called a plasmodium, continues to crawl happily about while having lots of sex with itself and producing spores that will become new little free-living slime moldlings.

But if you’re a cellular slime mold, you get to keep your cell walls and some of your individuality. You glue yourself to your fellows and become a type of multicellular organism. There’s a downside – you don’t get to enjoy your newfound bros for long, since in cellular slime molds, sex = death. About a third of your buddies dry up and form a stalk, and the rest make spores that are pumped out of the stalk to become new little free-living slime moldlings. At least, until they hear the signal and the Borg rises again…

Slime molds are way, way, way smarter than a slimy crawling pancake ought to be. The plasmodial slime mold Physarum (when in Borg form) can find the shortest way through a maze. Researchers grew a slime mold in a maze, and then put food at the opposite openings of the maze. The slime mold sent half of its body to eat at each end but stayed connected by winding pseudopods throughout the maze. The pseudopods were wound through the shortest possible route, leading scientists to conclude that slime molds are smarter than Harry Potter.

Watch a fetching yellow plasmodial slime mold crawl and spawn in this time-lapse video, courtesy of the ever-awesome Martini-Corona and her dad. So that the wrath of the world’s super-intelligent slime molds does not descend upon you, know that slime molds are NOT fungi. They are protists, in the same kingdom as amoebas and single-celled algae and such. In case this makes you sad, this video has real fungi for you to admire right after the live nude slime mold.

16 Responses to Slime molds unite! (And also divide.)

  1. Kate says:

    Yeah, but can they play quidditch?

    This is really interesting. I’d read a little about slime molds a while back in a study on altruism… which leads me to believe that nature is a lot more interesting than most people know.

    Why don’t they teach this stuff in High School? Every kid would want to be a biologist!

  2. I fear that slime molds would kick our butts at Quidditch, despite not having hands. Or brooms. I just have a bad feeling…

    I try to sell people on the awesomeness of the natural world by focusing on sex and death. Since most of the natural world is about sex and death anyway, it makes it pretty easy. :)

  3. […] puzzle-solving slime molds have won an Ig Nobel Prize in Cognitive Science! Fame and fortune surely […]

  4. […] find the most effective way of linking together scattered sources of food, and it can even find the shortest path through a maze. But can it do the same for Tokyo's sprawling […]

  5. […] This amoeba-like creature forages for food by sending out branches (plasmodia) from a central location. Even though it forms vast, sprawling networks, it still remains as a single cell. It’s incredibly dynamic. Its various veins change thickness and shape, new ones form while old ones vanish, and the entire network can crawl a few centimetres every hour. For a ‘mindless organism’, the slime mould’s skill at creating efficient networks is extraordinary. It can find the most effective way of linking together scattered sources of food, and it can even find the shortest path through a maze. […]

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  9. […] the most effective way of linking together scattered sources of food, and it can even find the shortest path through a maze. But can it do the same for Tokyo’s sprawling […]

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