Meet the charismatic slime mold Physarum—which can learn, make decisions, and go through mazes without a brain—and the researchers studying it.
Brainless Slime Molds Navigate Mazes and Make Decisions
Published: September 22, 2020
Tanya Latty: I had never even heard of slime mold before I took this job.
So, here you have this organism that has no brain, no organs, no neurons of any kind, yet it’s able to do some of the behaviors we normally associate with animals with brains.
Toshiyuki Nakagaki: It is mysterious. Astounding. Solving a maze is amazing. How can a single-celled organism have such a capacity?
Latty: I mean, when you think about it, 99 percent of the living things on our planet are brainless, but they need to find food; they need to find partners to reproduce often; they may need to hide from predator. How do you do all of that when you don’t have a brain?
When I came back to Australia, I thought it would be awesome to have one of these as a lab pet. It lived in my desk for a few weeks. I started to notice that it was doing things a lot like my ants were doing.
Narrator: So, she introduced Physarum to one of her colleagues, Audrey Dussutour.
Audrey Dussutour: I was a post-doc, in Australia, studying nutrition in ants.
It looked like an old omelet. The next day, it had escaped from the box we put him in. It reminded us of this alien organism from a ’50s movie that ate people, and grew and grew as it ate.
Latty: It’s unstoppable, it just, kind of, keeps coming.
Movie Announcer: The world could fall, before the bloodcurdling threat of The Blob.
Dussutour: Physarum doesn’t eat people, it eats oatmeal. But it’s really a glutton. It doubles in size every day. I nicknamed it “Blob.”
Narrator: Physarum began consuming their time and attention, and soon Tanya and Audrey shifted the focus of their research to this remarkable creature.
Secret Mind of Slime
Produced, Directed, and Edited for NOVA by: Vincent Liota
Digital producer: Ana Aceves
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020