They’re All Wasted

I’m thinking that if I had it to do over again, I might be a Science Man. Because it is becoming increasingly clear to me that Science Men get paid money to do Fun Things.

For instance, the Science Man Andrew Adamatzky of the University of the West of England recently decided that it should be determined whether slime moulds prefer food, or drugs.

Adamatzky is something of an aficionado of slime mould; previously, he had employed the creatures to solve a geometry problem usually approached via complex computing: “finding the many-sided shape that encompasses a number of points—called the ‘concave hull’.” Slime moulds have also been used to navigate mazes, including one that reproduced the Tokyo subway system, and to mimic “logic gates,” the foundation of computers. At this fascinating link, slime moulds can be perceived forming, in a virtual United States, a more efficient interstate highway system than exists in the “real” one.

As I confessed here, I am a fan of slime mould myself. These are people neither fish nor fowl—not an animal, not a plant, previously misapprehended as fungi, now understood as, instead, “protists.”

Slime moulds wander all the world, where they feed on microorganisms that in turn feed on dead plant material. Like all protists, slime moulds are unicellular, or multicellular without specialized tissues. Meaning they don’t have what we understand as “brains,” or much of anything else.

For most of their lives, slime moulds behave Normally. But when the food supply runs low, they release signal molecules that allow them to find one another, and then they group together in swarms, sometimes creating a tiny, multicellular, coordinated, slug-like creature, that crawls like an animal to an open, sunny place, and there grows into what the Science Men call “a fruiting body,” releasing spores. A picture of one a slime mould conglomeration, going after beer, can be seen above.

With such photographic evidence, baldly exposing the slime mould’s brazen predilection for alcohol, it is not surprising that Science Man Adamatzky, once he had completed his Study, concluded that slime mould will, when give the choice, prefer drugs, rather than food.

Science Man Adamatzky had previously fed his slime moulds on oats and honey, to encourage them to get up and go after geometry problems. But, alas, such foodstuffs sometimes proved not enough to spur his protists on.

“For some tasks, oats and honey are not enough,” he told BBC News. “We cannot approximate the concave hull using only attractants. So, last November I was trying to find what would be an ideal substance which can play the role of a long-distance attractant and short-distance repellent.”

Adamatzky knew from previous studies “that it was clear that nutritional value of a substance is not a prerequisite for its chemo-attractant effectiveness.” So, puckishly, he decided to try on his slime moulds “the herbal tablets Nytol, Klams Sleep and Kalms Tablets.”

The slime moulds liked this stuff. In the photo below they can be seen surrounding and ingesting herbal sedative tablets, “in what can be a complex geometry conundrum.”

Given a choice between these sedatives, and their previous diet of oats and honey, the slime moulds ran right off from the latter, in favor of the former.

“I became curious why Physarum becomes so mad about these tablets – it ignores vitamin pills completely,” [Adamatzky] said. “So I tested all active substances present in the tablets.”

When Adamatzky broke out the various ingredients from the herbal tablets—passion flower, wild lettuce, hops, and the like—he discovered that slime moulds were taken most with valerian root.

Why does this not surprise me. I eat the stuff myself. When I can get it away from the cats. Who, if a capsule happens to stray from the bottle, will carry it off, devour the contents, and thereby achieve, for a time, bliss.

Adamatzky, who roams in the realm of “unconventional computing,” cheerfully admits that these experiments “were nothing more than pursuing his curiosity about the slime mould’s unusual tastes, though the outcome will help with future experiments exploiting its computational abilities.”

“We can now compute planar shapes, and therefore do more advanced procedures of image analysis with slime moulds,” he said. “Also, using these herbal tablets we can attract slime moulds and keep them ‘concentrated’ in a local domain of space.”

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7 Responses to “They’re All Wasted”


  1. 1 possum June 15, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Never has there been any question in Possum Valley–Science Men have all the fun. In my business we see new and interesting effects of nature every day. No slime molds to play with but enough chemicals and different biological processes to keep any measure of curious human happy and satisfied.

    • 2 bluenred June 16, 2011 at 8:26 am

      Well, like I’ve said, you’re a smarter man than I, Mr. Possum.

      I think you should get some slime moulds, and have a Study. ; )

  2. 3 possum June 16, 2011 at 8:31 am

    While your suggestion of studying slime molds does have a certain ring of pleasure associated, Dr. Possum is really not the guy to be doing that. Slime is not my bag. We have more than enough body excretions around the place already without adding to the mess. But thanks for the suggestion. :)

    • 4 bluenred June 16, 2011 at 8:34 am

      They’re not really slimy. They’re totally cool: take a look. These studies are also hinting that at least in some ways they’re smarter than humans, even though they don’t have brains. : 0

  3. 5 possum June 16, 2011 at 8:44 am

    That slime molds are smarter than many humans is no surprise. There are lots of folks who manage to get their names in the news on the basis of their lack of intelligence. Maybe the molds will be insulted by your comparison.

    • 6 bluenred June 16, 2011 at 8:52 am

      They shouldn’t be insulted: I said they were smarter than.

      However, to be absolutely sure, I think you should do a Study, to determine if the slime moulds were, indeed, insulted. ; )

  4. 7 possum June 16, 2011 at 9:00 am

    But smarter than an human is not much of a compliment. There is a legal beagle on the west coast who may be a better judge of the slime mold reaction than a lowly east coast possum. :)


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