‘Blob’: the extraordinary creature that forces us to question whether we are the smartest species | Science

You are lost in a huge store that looks like a maze and you don’t know how to get out of it. Who do you ask for help?

Question 2: You are writing a policy document to advise the US government on how to govern its national borders. Where do you look for advice?

Last question: You need to draw a map of the cosmic web, how do you do that?

There are, of course, several answers to these questions, but in all cases you could be inspired by one organism: the slime mold, which also goes by many different names.

  • See also: Scientists discover giant bacterium visible to the naked eye

Being scientifically accurate, it’s not exactly a mold… but at least one of its species is extraordinary.

“Mold is a division of the fungal world, but slime mold is actually a protist (not an animal, plant or fungus) – it’s essentially a giant cell,” says biologist Merlin Sheldrake, author of the book Entangled Life, that addresses the topic.

Slime mold is a plasmodium, that is, a cell that contains many nuclei. So, unlike most single-celled organisms, you don’t need a microscope to see it.

And that single cell is capable of weaving vast exploratory networks made of vein-like tentacles that can extend up to a meter.

There are about 900 species of slime mold, but let’s focus on Physarum Polycephalum, which literally means “many-headed mold”. He is also known as “blob” (referring to the classic 1958 film The Blob).

Classic movie The Blob served as the inspiration for popularly naming the slime mold — Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Why are the world’s scientists so excited about this particular species?

“It has become an iconic problem-solving organism. It’s easy to grow and grows fast, which is one of the reasons it’s been so well studied,” explains Sheldrake.

“But above all, their behavior is extraordinary.”

He can do all kinds of things.

“Explore, solve problems, adapt to new situations, make decisions between alternative courses of action – and all without a brain!”

“Physarum is sensitive to the chemical gradient, so it can grow towards chemical signals or stay away from unattractive ones.”

“First, it tends to grow in all directions at once. And then, when it finds food, it retracts and forms the connections between its food sources.”

It’s a bit like you’re in the desert and you need to look for water. You have to choose only one direction to walk.

Physarum Polycephalum can “walk” in all directions at once until it finds food; then it shrinks the branches that found nothing and strengthens those that did, through a series of chemical contractions.

In one memorable experiment, “blob” learned to “ignore” the chemicals placed to block its path to food. This behavior suggests a primitive form of memory, and no one knows how it accomplishes this feat — Photo: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

“It never ceases to amaze me that they can use these contractions to do this kind of analog calculation, to integrate information without needing a brain. That their coordination takes place everywhere at the same time and nowhere in particular.”

A rail network in Japan

All this means that the “blob” is capable, in human terms, of solving problems, making networks, navigating systems and mazes with incredible efficiency.

There’s an iconic Japanese study from 2010, when Physarum charted the Greater Tokyo rail network, and all it took was a small Petri dish and a handful of oats.

According to studies, Physarum loves oatmeal, it is their favorite food.

“So they modeled the Greater Tokyo area by putting oat cups in urban centers and then launched it. Over the course of a few hours, it had formed an efficient network that connected the oat cups together, and that network looked a lot like the subway network. existing in the Greater Tokyo area”, the study details.

Physarum had established, in a matter of hours, an effective network that took decades to build in real life.

Adapted from the illustration from Professor Toshiyuki Nakagaki’s study on the creation and optimization of networks by P. polycephalum. — Photo: TIM TIM / WIKIPEDIA

After the Tokyo study, experiments with Physarum Polycephalum took off all over the world, to design new urban transport networks or find effective fire evacuation routes, even map the cosmic web… which sounds strange, but it happened.

A team of scientists has run a digital simulation tracing the locations of 37,000 known galaxies.

So a blob-inspired algorithm, adapted from the Petri dish to work in three dimensions, was unleashed on a virtual feast where galaxies were represented by stacks of digital oatmeal cups, so to speak.

From there, the algorithm produced a 3D digital map of the underlying cosmic web, visualizing the largely invisible strands of matter that astrophysicists believe unite the galaxies of the universe.

They compared it to data from the Hubble Space Telescope, which detects traces of the cosmic web, and found that it all largely matched.

So there seems to be an uncanny similarity between the two networks, the “blob” network formed by biological evolution and those of structures in the cosmos created by the primordial force of gravity.

Astronomers have appealed to creativity in trying to trace the elusive cosmic web, the backbone of the cosmos. The images show some of the galaxies that the “blob” fed on (represented in yellow) and the connecting threads of the cosmic web (purple) overlapping — Photo: NASA, ESA Y J. BURCHETT Y O. ELEK (UC SANTA CROSS)

Let’s go back to the harsh reality of that little blue dot in space that is our world.

Physarum can also help us with problems that go beyond mapping and networking, to more complex human things like policy making and governance.

“In a way, the Physarum are economists, in terms of achieving a great universe,” says experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats.

In 2018, he went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, USA with an idea.

“I proposed that blobs be appointed as visiting professors, with the idea of ​​having a group of these experts on campus to reflect on some of the world’s most challenging problems.”

It was the world’s first academic program for a non-human species and was called the Plasmodium Consortium.

An American university page has an area dedicated to the consortium — Photo: Reproduction/Hampshire College

Physarum’s polycephalies became scholars, entitled to an office.

“It doesn’t have windows, but the blobs don’t like light very much, so from their point of view it was good, and as soon as they settled in there, we were able to get started.”

They modeled human problems in such a way that blobs could “understand” them to gain their unbiased perspective.

“Physarum are superorganisms: they are one despite being many. Therefore, they are more objective than we are when it comes to human affairs.”

They started with the usual issues of networking and mapping, distribution and transportation, before moving on to some larger policy concerns, “from drug policy to issues of our use of resources,” Keats notes.

Perhaps the most controversial experiments were those that explored international border politics.

“We’ve created a simplified world, which is really what anybody does when they’re creating any kind of model (economists do it all the time).”

“What we did was take one of the most fundamental conditions: one place has something, another place has something else, and each place wants to protect what it has against the other.”

The “blob” with his favorite dish: oatmeal — Photo: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

They used two essential resources for the blobs, protein and sugar, and spread them out in a Petri dish, each on an opposite side, and tried with a wall between them and also without it, leaving Physarum to figure out what to do with. these resources.

“They not only survived, but thrived in the absence of a wall and flourished more in the border area”, explains the researcher.

“So we wrote a letter to Kirstjen Nielsen, who was the Secretary of Homeland Security in the US at the time, and we also sent it to the United Nations and many other government bodies, telling them that borders are not a good idea and that we must overcome the fear to recognize how having open borders benefits everyone.”

Of course, these multifaceted international problems cannot be reduced to a few petri dishes.

But the point is that these experiments are deliberately exaggerated to challenge us to think in new ways.

“The Plasmodium consortium is, in a sense, absurd. People laugh when they hear that the blobs have set up a group of experts in collaboration with humans at a university in the United States because that’s just not how things are done.”

But I think there’s also something very serious behind it. Physarum have exceptional intelligence, so we need to incorporate some of the insights we get from watching how they behave, thinking about ourselves in ways we haven’t done before.”

That’s the most attractive aspect of it all. That a brainless organism can teach us to be more objective, to think more long-term, and that it can approach a problem in a way that we simply wouldn’t.

And in the case of some puzzles, like mapping the cosmos, it can be faster than us.

All this calls into question our human definitions of intelligence.

From the bottom of our hierarchies, Physarum is considered a challenge that has been increasingly studied — Photo: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

“Our hierarchical view of intelligence with humans at the top of the Great Pyramid reveals the narcissism of our species,” says Sheldrake.

“Thinking about the world without using ourselves as the standard by which all other living things should be judged can help to dampen some of the hierarchies that underpin modern thinking.”

These hierarchies mean that we Homo sapiens have an incredibly high opinion of ourselves, and this has helped us get far.

But perhaps that has already served its purpose.

“I think we humans have a need to believe in a kind of superiority. That high self-esteem has been the engine of domination. We’ve been able to do more and that’s a result of believing we can do more,” says Keats. .

“But we’re reaching a limit, to the point where this way of thinking is making the world worse for us and for other species. So it’s time to rethink.”

And a catalyst for that rethinking is Physarum Polycephalum, a single-cell brainless protist that sits at the bottom of that hierarchy, from where it can shake up the entire system.

This text was originally published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-62703311

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