Thu, Dec 29, 2011 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Japanese scientists see slime as the key to cleverness

AN UNLIKELY HERO:Slime mold is even better than a computer at finding the best route around a series of obstacles and could help to develop transport networks


Toshiyuki Nakagaki, a professor at Future University Hakodate, shows amoeboid yellow slime mold on petri dishes in his laboratory in Hakodate, Japan, on March 10.

Photo: AFP

A brainless, primeval organism able to navigate a maze might help Japanese scientists devise the ideal transport network design. Not bad for a mono-cellular being that lives on rotting leaves.

Amoeboid yellow slime mold has been on Earth for thousands of years, living a distinctly low-tech life, but, say scientists, it could provide the key to designing bio-computers capable of solving complex problems.

Toshiyuki Nakagaki, a professor at Future University Hakodate, says the organism, which he cultivates in petri dishes, “organizes” its cells to create the most direct route through a maze to a source of food.

He says the cells appear to have a kind of information-processing ability that allows them to “optimize” the route along which the mold grows to reach food while avoiding stresses — like light — that may damage them.

“Humans are not the only living things with information-processing abilities,” Nakagaki said in his laboratory in Hakodate on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.

“Simple creatures can solve certain kinds of difficult puzzles,” Nakagaki said. “If you want to spotlight the essence of life or intelligence, it’s easier to use these simple creatures.”

And it doesn’t get much more simple than slime mold, an organism that inhabits decaying leaves and logs and munches on bacteria.

Physarum polycephalum, or grape-cluster slime, grows large enough to be seen without a microscope and has the appearance of mayonnaise.

Nakagaki’s work with the slime was recognized by the award of Ig Nobel prizes in 2008 and last year. The spoof Nobel prizes are given to scientists who can “first make people laugh and then make them think.”

And, say his contemporaries, slime may sound like an odd place to go looking for the key to -intelligence, but it is exactly the right place to start.

Atsushi Tero, at Kyushu University in western Japan, said slime mold studies are actually quite an orthodox approach to figuring out the mechanism of human intelligence.

He said slime molds can create much more effective networks than even the most advanced technology that man has.

“Computers are not so good at analyzing the best routes that connect many base points because the volume of calculations becomes too large for them,” Tero said. “But slime molds, without calculating all the possible options, can flow over areas in an impromptu manner and gradually find the best routes.”

“Slime molds that have survived for hundreds of millions of years can flexibly adjust themselves to a change of the environment,” he said. “They can even create networks that are resistant to unexpected stimulus.”

Research has shown slime molds become inactive when subjected to stress such as temperature or humidity changes. They even appear to “remember” the stresses and protectively become inactive when they might expect to experience them.

Tero and his research team have successfully had slime molds form the pattern of a railway system quite similar to the railroad networks of the Kanto region encircling Tokyo — which were designed by hard-thinking people.

He hopes these slime mold networks will be used in future designs of new transport systems or electric transmission lines that need to incorporate detours to get around power outages.

Masashi Aono, a researcher at Riken, a natural science research institute based in Saitama, says his project aims to examine the mechanism of the human brain and eventually duplicate that brain with slime molds.

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