Life

'The Blob': This mysterious 'smart' slime can solve puzzles and make decisions

A picture taken on October 16, 2019 at the Parc Zoologique de Paris shows a Physarum Polycephalum better known as a "Blob."
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN | AFP | Getty Images

It sounds like something out of a horror film, but it's real: A genius slime mold that's capable of learning, solving puzzles and making decisions is on display at the Paris Zoological Park.

The slime is called Physarum polycephalum, but most people refer to it as "The Blob."

This unique organism is technically not a plant, animal or fungi, Audrey Dussutour, a researcher who studies slime molds at the Center for Integrative Biology in Toulouse, tells CNBC Make It. It's an "amoebozoa," which is the kingdom used to classify organisms that are neither plant nor animal.

Slime molds have existed on Earth for billions of years, and they're found naturally in temperate climates, Dussutour says. But the blob has captivated the public and researchers alike because of its almost mystical properties and abilities.

For example, the blob can regenerate after a dormant period so it doesn't age, Dussutour says. And it only contains one cell but spans a few square meters and holds billions of nuclei.

But perhaps most impressively, The Blob doesn't have a brain or nervous system, it doesn't have eyes, ears or a mouth — but it can learn.

"When slime molds are placed in a new environment, they'll spread out in every direction, assessing the environment," Dussutour says. "If they find something they like, they'll reinforce the pathway. If they find something they don't like they'll retract."

Petri dishes containing cultures of Physarum Polycephalum better known as "Blob."
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN | AFP | Getty Images

"They remember, anticipate and decide."

For example, in a 2010 study in the journal Science, researchers placed the slime on a map of Japan with oat flakes over the major cities. The slime strategically positioned itself to get to the food efficiently, and when it was done, the pattern looked almost identical to the Tokyo Rail System.

In other experiments, the slime mold has successfully completed a maze.

The slime mold uses tubes in its cell plasma to perceive stimulus in its environment (it picks up on chemicals, light and humidity, for example) and acts accordingly, choosing "conditions or food to maximize their survival," Dussutour says.

Slime mold is more than just a party trick; its features can be used to inspire lots of practical advancements, such as building circuits, Dussutour says.

"Physarum is also a source of inspiration for health-related issues," she says. For example, the slime mold networks remind some of the vascular network in a tumor, which could inform cancer research. Its regenerative properties could also help doctors figure out how to heal cuts, she adds.

The slime mold exhibit runs through Nov. 3, 2019.

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