TNB Night Owl – The Blob (Not The Movie)

P. polycephalum August 2017. Photo By GerritR.

It’s bright yellow and looks like a fungus. It has no brain but can reason like an animal. It is typically found in the woods, but is not a plant. It has no appendages but can move like an amoeba (!?) at a top speed of 4cm/hour (1.6 inches/hour). Oh, and it has nearly 720 sexes.

Just a single cell with multiple nuclei, it has no mouth, ears, or eyes, yet it can detect light, find and “eat” food, and solve problems. For sustenance, it consumes yeasts, bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms.

If it’s not an animal, not a plant, and not a fungus, what is it?

Millions of years before animals appeared on Earth, a eukaryotic microbe we now call Physarum polycephalum (meaning the “many-headed slime”) reared it’s ugly heads. Previously classified as a fungi (and before that as a plant) it is now organized under the kingdom Protista.

A 2016 research paper entitled, “Decision-making without a brain: how an amoeboid organism solves the two-armed bandit” demonstrates that P. polycephalum makes decisions. In each experiment performed, two food rewards were offered to the subject. The experiments start off with an easy choice. With successive experiments, the choices become harder as the difference between the rewards is minimized. The paper shows that P. polycephalum learns and remembers.

A few more interesting facts about this slime mold:
• It eats by enveloping food and secretes enzymes to digest the victuals
• If cut in half, the two halves will heal themselves
• If one half learns something, when rejoined with the other half the knowldege is transferred to the second half.

In October, the Paris Zoological Park (part of the Natural History Museum) debuted an exhibit featuring P. polycephalum, which they’ve nicknamed “le blob” in a tip of the hat to Steve McQueen’s first credited movie, The Blob (1958). Watch this short (1:27 minutes) video, and be sure to read the English subtitles with a fun French accent.

Bruno David, who is president of the Natural History Museum, remarked, “[t]he blob is really one of the most extraordinary things on Earth today, but it’s been here for millions of years, and we still don’t really know what it is”.

Question of the night: How easily does knowledge transfer to your better half?

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About Richard Doud 603 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.