It’s been a consultant for NASA, shot at by police and mistaken for an alien. How slime mold–a brainless, single-celled organism–mapped the dark universe, keeps challenging the top minds to rethink what intelligence even is and has an ability to fill us with wonder beyond the human kind.

Slime mold’s oddities are balanced by behavior that is ultra-relatable–they are ruled by food! Case in point: A hungry individual is avoided more by its peers than a poisoned one. Humans are now looking to the hardwired programming that gets them fed ASAP to feed the next big innovation.

It’s the graphic expression during their hunt for a snack that helps us see them “think” out loud. With single-minded focus slime mold moves towards what it likes (oats, decaying leaves) and avoids what it dislikes (sun, salt, cold air). The clip above invites us for a closer look at their jiggle wiggle–fitting for an organism who makes us pulsate with possibility.

Similar to how humans recognize hidden gifts within one another, connecting them to deeper purposes and callings, experts are calling out the remarkable abilities of slime mold, offering potential benefits to all forms of life.

Biomechanical cues help slime mold take in the environment. GIF credit: Nirosha Murugan, Levin Lab, Tufts University and Wyss Institute at Harvard University 

They have an enviable skill for finding the most direct route without unnecessary complications.

By leveraging this talent we have a valuable tool for rethinking essential connectors like interstate highways, railways, power grids, undersea cables as well as planning for the new infrastructure that the world needs, like networks to transfer clean energy, distribute water, and remove municipal solid waste throughout communities.

While there is no definitive answer to the smarts of slime mold, experts believe it lies in the constant, rhythmic, local interactions that resemble a pulse or heartbreat when slowed and magnified.

When in a new place, slime mold will ooze out in different directions with its whispering, delicate, fingerlike trails scanning the territory, usually looking for a snack. When food is detected, they refine their journey till they identify the most efficient route; that’s when repetition and feedback loops transform wispy paths into snack superhighways. Unrewarding dead-ends dissipate. Records remain.

That’s because they leave a translucent chemical memory (think slug trails) which act as an external, spatial memory so they don’t waste time going down unrewarding paths again. Other studies not involving food show slime mold using biomechanical cues to help make decisions. A new study by CNRS demonstrated the blob learns to tolerate substances by absorbing them.

This is the work of a pro.

Clockwise: Slime mold’s oddities are balanced by behavior that is ultra-relatable—they are ruled by food. Image credit: Dr. Audrey Dussutour | In the field scouring logs for bacteria and fungi snacks. Photo: Bjorn S. | Slime mold’s take on the US interstate highway system. Image: Andy Adamatzky and Andrew Illachinski

Just like trees connect and support each other, slime mold helps out their peers too.

They can “talk” or exchange what they learn to their peers by fusing cells, like intel on food locations and tips on areas to avoid. Discoveries from past experiences may even lead to epigenetic changes (a big word that means the tiny switches in our body that can turn genes on or off, affecting how our body works without changing the actual genes themselves) leading slime mold to encode past experiences and retain memories.

Studies support that they don’t require a brain to wisen up to things they haven’t experienced themselves and reveal their decentralized method of communicating and learning. Individual decisions benefit the greater group. Even in hibernation mode (some are known to shut down for 30 years) they can retain epigenetic changes for a period of time. Seems straightforward till you remember they lack a nervous system to store them.

This is the Part 3 of our 8-edition blog series on slime mold by guest writer Katie Losey. She answers your top questions on this fascinating organism and dives into how a brainless, single cell is capable of shaping our futures and blowing our minds. Read part 4, “Your Next Flight Could be Designed by Slime Mold and Human Bones” here.

Main Image: While there is no definitive answer to the smarts of the slime mold, experts believe it lies in the rhythmic, local interactions that can be seen when slowed and magnified. Image Credit: Scott Chimileski

About the Author: Katie Losey is committed to bridging the gap between humans, nature’s genius, breakthrough innovations and overlooked wonder. She has worked at the intersection of business and conservation for two decades. In her work she has taken on many roles, including marketing director, writer, and strategist for companies in travel, conservation, nonprofit, and energy sectors. In these roles, she was further exposed to the possibilities of innovation inspired by nature from locking eyes with gorillas in Rwanda and swimming alongside orcas in Norway to dodging rats in NYC! Katie has been a member of The Explorers Club since 2015 and serves on their Public Lecture, Film and World Oceans Week Committees. She has been guest writing for the Biomimicry Institute since 2019, and her science writing has been featured in courses at the U of Cambridge, Johns Hopkins U, and on the cover story of the U of Richmond Magazine (her alma mater). She lives in NYC. Connect with Katie on Instagram and LinkedIn.



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