Tag Archives: Parc Zoologique Paris

Amusing Monday: A slime mold named ‘Blob’ becomes a hit in Paris

A zoo in Paris, Parc Zoologique Paris, captured headlines and incited fits of laughter while announcing a new exhibit called “The Blob,” which is also the name of a particular slime mold that zookeepers have boldly placed on display for the public to see.

Yes, the zoo is proudly showing off a yellow slime mold, whose name is causing people to remember a 1950s horror movie, “The Blob,” starring Steve McQueen. The zoo’s website has stirred up passions and attracted visitors with this promotion:

“Sheltered in dark and humid habitats, Blob knows how to be discreet. This unicellular being is surprising by its unusual abilities. Even though he has no mouth, stomach or eyes, he is perfectly able to detect the presence of food (spores of fungi, bacteria and microbes) and to ingest it.

“Devoid of legs or wings, it moves up to 1 centimeter per hour while stretching its membrane. Cut it into pieces, the blob will heal in two minutes! He does not have two different sexes, but around 720, so reproduction is not a problem for him.

“The most amazing is his ability to solve problems, present different personalities, and even communicate, while being devoid of brains!”

You may have seen reports on television (videos this page) or heard NPR commentator Scott Simon’s interview Saturday with Audrey Dussutour of the French National Center for Scientific Research.

“If it were right in front of me on the bathroom floor, what would it look like?” Scott asks.

“Scrambled eggs; it would look exactly like scrambled eggs,” came the reply.

“Oh, but don’t mistake it for such,” Scott says, “This blob has been called a genius. What makes a blob with no brain a genius?”

The answer is based on years of scientific research into this eukaryotic organism called Physarum polycephalum, “the many headed slime.” Once considered a fungus, slime molds are not plants, animals or fungi but are grouped in the kingdom Protista, along with paramecia and amoebae.

Years ago, scientists realized that slime molds have a way of growing and moving to optimize their access to food sources. They can even find their way through a maze. Because slime molds don’t have a brain, their decisions are based on chemistry and physics. As researchers learned more about them, they came to realize that if the movements of the Blob can be explained mathematically, they might form the basis of a computer program.

In 2004, a group of Japanese researchers described how the slime mold was able to build a network of tubes through which chemicals and nutrients are transported, resulting in an impressive communications network. See Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biological Sciences.

Two years ago, a team of researchers based at Harvard University were able to simulate the observed responses of a slime mold with a mathematical model. Their hypothesis was that an unidentified chemical drives the response.

As they describe in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ““A stimulus triggers the release of a signaling molecule. The molecule is initially advected by fluid flows but also increases fluid flows, generating a feedback loop and enabling the movement of information throughout the organism’s body.”

If you were wondering about the 720 different sexes, that is based on the large number of variants of three possible sex genes, with two genes making up an individual. Many combinations are possible. Check out the paper on genetics by two University of Tokyo researchers.

By the way, researchers have been referring to slime molds as “blobs” or “goo” for at least a decade, probably much longer. Basic information about these interesting creatures and how they are being studied can be seen in the bottom two videos on this page.

Most interesting of all perhaps is the video at this top of this page, which I found while searching for research on slime molds. It is a musical piece by Eduardo Miranda produced through the sonification of a slime mold as it searches for food.

I can’t say I understand all the steps taken to produce the music or the visualization that we see on the video, but you can read the 17-page paper written on the subject, including this tidbit:

“The instrumental part and the synthesized sounds are musifications and sonifications, respectively, of a computer simulation of Physarum goo foraging for food. A visual animation of the simulation that generated the materials for the composition is displayed during the performance, but the images are twisted by the musicians as they play: The music controls software that manipulates the animations in real-time. Each instrument holds a microphone, which relays the sound to a system that controls the images.”

Perhaps it is better to just enjoy the music.

After all the recent talk about slime molds, some people are wondering if the Blob would make a good pet. Sure, why not? An Internet search turns up a variety of do-it-yourself projects, and I even found a “Slime Mold Growing Kit” designed for classroom use.