The Beauty of Slime Moulds

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 The world is doubtlessly beautiful, but sometimes beauty can be found in odd an unconventional forms.

So it is with perhaps one of the more repulsive lifeforms on our earth: the slime mould. But despite its rather unflattering name and underwhelming looks, this creature is both fascinating and have given us unique insights that will help us in our futures.

Slime Moulds
via Discover Magazine


You're wandering through the woods, minding your own business. The leaves are dark and wet against your feet but hey, you thought ahead and wore wellies this time - nothing can stop you! You tilt your head up and close your eyes as you breathe in the fresh, clean, damp air. Distracted, your foot catches in the hook of a root and, before you know it, you're tripping and falling. You push out your hands out in front of you to break your fall and your palms connect with..this.

So what are they? 

There's no surprise in where slime moulds got their names from. Slimy and toxic-yellow, they cover rotting wood and eat fungi. They have no brains or nervous system and so share the most in common with amoebas. Aside from their generally unpleasant appearance they might be entirely unremarkable, it it wasn't for the way they move and navigate the world around them.

Why are they so important?

Slime moulds navigate their way around the forest floor searching for food in a very interesting manner, which has given scientists great insight about efficiency and how we might best be able to program robots or build transport systems.
They move using pulsing tendrils called psudopods which, through a clever organization can navigate the world without a brain:

"Every part rhythmically expands and contracts, pushing around the fluid inside. If one part of the plasmodium touches something attractive, like food, it pulses more quickly and widens. If another part meets something repulsive, like light, it pulses more slowly and shrinks. By adding up all of these effects, the plasmodium flows in the best possible direction without a single conscious thought. It is the ultimate in crowdsourcing."- Ed Yong

This mimics how other creatures, such as humans and ants, navigate the world. But in this case the lack of a brain is what is remarkable. Human hikers might explore woodland and fields and, over time, trails are stomped into the ground by many trudging feet. The trails that are the most effective remain, trodden into the grass, and those that proved inefficient are difficult are used less and so gradually overgrow once again. This way the less efficient routes are gradually erased and the more efficient routes are reinforced. When ants go exploring they do something similar using pheremones. They lay out pheremones to plot their path so that they know where they've been before and this discourages other ants from trotting down pointless routes. When the ants find something they like, they pump out another pheremone which attracts other ants down that route. This way efficient routes are reinforced and many a full ant belly is had by all.
The brianless slime moulds do they same: they send out slime trails that explore routes. The inefficient paths are abandoned and lesser slime is left to significy that these routes should not be used again, whereas when an efficient and lucrative route is discovered more stronger slime mould is encouraged down it, emphasising its efficiency.

This was put to the test as scientists placed slime moulds on a map of Tokyo where they had placed food points where all the major cities were. They found that despite not knowing their environments or having any opportunity to plan, Slime moulds tracked out the most efficient routes which - amazingly - matched up with the road systems all ready put in place. By sending out trails to all possible configurations and then drawing back to leave only the most efficient, the slime moulds became city planners.
The same could be done with maps around the world.

This ability also allows the slime moulds to navigate mazes, which is an important development as it can be a lesson used to assist in the programming of robots. Because it's too complicated and uses too much memory to program robots with pre-programmed maps or for them to build up maps as they explore, one way of allowing them to move freely without getting trapped is to program in an imperative to 'avoid the past', as slime moulds do. By doing so like slime moulds sending out all their trails and then reducing them down, robots can freely explore and then naturally reduce down their movements to use only the most efficient routes.

These are only some of the large variety of experiments that are being conducted with slime moulds. These humble gooey creatures are set to teach us a heck of a lot about decision making processes, efficiency, and how best to plan for our collective futures.

-Slime mould memories: discover magazine
-'Slime mould make decisions like humans'
-'Slime mould attacks simulate Tokyo rail networks'
-BBC Youtube: Slime mould time lapse
-The Gaurdian 'Let Slime moulds do the thinking' 

And now for something completely different:

Next week I will be packing up and trotting off to Download Festival, whereby I will participate in the noble tradition of standing in a field and getting rained on for three days straight.

On a side note, did you even know that there is wellie-related porn? I certainly didn't until I did an image search, so I hope you appreciate this picture!

As a result, I won't be able to contribute next Sunday. But fear not, regular programming will resume from then on...

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