I know we’re all adults here, but I have to know. What is your favorite living organism? Don’t answer too quickly. Think about it. There are a lot to choose from. A whole world, in fact! So take your time and think. I’ll wait.
Have you chosen? What is it? Never mind. It doesn’t matter because I’m 99 percent sure that you are completely wrong.
Why are you wrong? Because you probably neglected to consider the humble slime mold. They are neither fungus nor animal, but have characteristics of both. One cell can grow up to 3 meters (about 9 feet) long. Indeed, slime molds are undoubtedly the most amazing organism on the planet.
Slime molds don’t have brains, but they can solve mazes and build highways.
These simple organisms are, frankly, changing what we mean when we talk about intelligence. Slime molds, through secretions of ooze, can detect “memories,” which keeps the organism from backtracking on its quest for food and water. In a study on Physarum polycephalum, the slime mold proved it could solve a simple maze by laying down a slime trail and detecting those chemical signals.
In addition to being better at solving mazes than me, slime molds have recreated highways and railway systems. In a laboratory setting, scientists placed food in the same position as large urban centers. At first, the slime mold engulfed the entire map. However, over time, this organism thinned itself out. What was left was an almost exact replica of highways and railways in Tokyo, Canada, Spain and the United Kingdom. According to Scientific American:
In other words, the single-celled brainless amoebae did not grow living branches between pieces of food in a random manner; rather, they behaved like a team of human engineers, growing the most efficient networks possible. Just as engineers design railways to get people from one city to another as quickly as possible, given the terrain—only laying down the building materials that are needed—the slime molds hit upon the most economical routes from one morsel to another, conserving energy.
Also, we can use this unique feature to help treat cancer. No biggie.
Some of these single-cell organisms can come together and crawl.
Take Dictyostelium, for example. These little guys – known as Dicty – live below ground and grow as single-celled organisms. But when things go bad – like they can’t find enough food – they glom together and act as a multi-cellular organism. Thousands of these cells form a one millimeter long worm-thingy that crawls up through the soil. Once it reaches the top, some of the cells turn into stiff stalks, while others crawl up the stalk and form a ball of spores that will stick to the foot or fur of a lucky animal. Some of the Dictyostelium sacrifice themselves for the good of the group.
These little cells, in order to propagate the species, come together to act as one.
Slime molds can drop some dope beats.
Not on their own, obviously. They are only one cell; what do you want from them? But when given the right stimuli slime molds can produce sound in a controlled way. Or, as we might like to call it, slime molds can produce music.
Physicists at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. grew a slime mold – the same kind that solve mazes – in a petri dish that included six electrodes. As the tendrils grew and covered the electrodes, the scientists measured the electrical activity. They then used the signal from each electrode to create sound. Each electrode controlled a different frequency range and when it was all up together it made “a complex sound that represents the activity” of the slime mold. What’s more, it’s possible to control the electrical activity by shining light on the slime mold. Basically, these little creatures can make beautiful, beautiful music.
Slime molds are farmers.
Only a few creatures have managed to master farming, and slime molds are the only ones outside of the animal kingdom that we know of to have mastered the activity. Dicty slime molds have been shown to harbor within themselves a stash of bacteria – the same bacteria that Dicty likes to eat. When food times get tough, these farmer Dicty plant a new bacteria crop from their reserves. We don’t know yet if the farmer Dicty actually meet the definition of a farmer, but this is still very sophisticated behavior for an amoeba.
Slime molds are beautiful!
Keep in mind that these organisms consist of a single cell, sometimes with many nuclei. They have no brains or even a nervous system to speak of. These are primitive critters that straddle the line between fungus and animal and they are challenging our assumptions of what nature can produce.
Image credit: fickleandfreckled