The ‘blob’ is a brainless mystery organism that can solve mazes

The single-cell slime mold, which lacks a nervous system, has baffled scientists for decades for its ability to learn, pass knowledge to other molds and repair itself in minutes. Washington Post

You wouldn’t know it just by gazing at its yellowish veins of matter, but the blob is perhaps the most cunning brainless organism on the planet.

The single-cell slime mold, which lacks a nervous system, has baffled scientists for decades for its ability to learn, pass knowledge to other molds and repair itself in minutes like a headless Wolverine. Those scientists still don’t know how exactly to categorize this organism.

But after years of stupefying researchers, Physarum polycephalum — “many-headed slime,” which may be a cooler name than “the blob” — is making its public debut this month at the Paris Zoological Park.

“The blob is really one of the most extraordinary things on Earth today, but it’s been here for millions of years, and we still don’t really know what it is,” Bruno David, director of the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris, told Reuters.

“We don’t really know if it’s an animal, if it’s a fungus, if it’s in between,” David said. “Sometimes it behaves like an animal. It is capable of memory. It is capable of having an adapted behavior. It is capable of solving problems, of moving around a labyrinth.”

Slime molds are protists — mostly single-cell organisms grouped into their own kingdom on the evolutionary family tree because scientists aren’t sure where else to put them. And the blob is one of the standouts of the kingdom of wayward organisms, after what could be an evolution that began a billion years ago.

What David described is the blob’s exasperating ability to navigate without eyes, limbs or wings. Researchers who sliced up pieces of the organism and sprinkled them in a maze watched them consolidate back into its original form.

When researchers put nutrients at the end of a maze, the blob searched for a way to the food, retreating from dead ends to find the shortest possible way to the prize. That’s because it leaves a slime trail that tells itself where it has been, The Post’s Sarah Kaplan previously reported.

The blob stretches in such an efficient manner that it has replicated human design. One blob re-created the Tokyo rail system after scientists scattered oat flakes in a pattern that resembled Japanese cities around the capital region, Wired reported, in a stunning development that one day could lead to engineers looking to slime for cues on urban planning.

Blobs can even pass on what they know to others. In one study, French scientists created a bridge experiment with unpleasant nutrients in the way to make the blob find an alternate path to food on the other side.

After introducing the experiment to a new blob and allowing it to merge with another, the new super blob showed incredible wisdom.

“Somehow during the merging process, the naive cells learned a behavior for a situation that they themselves had never experienced,” Harvard University wrote in a summary of the findings.

The zoo coronation has been a journey for the organism. Some have taken to calling it “dog vomit” for its murky yellowish color, but its informal name comes from the film “The Blob,” a 1958 Steve McQueen B-movie about a creature from space that consumes two Pennsylvania towns in a bout of alien rage.

Could that really happen? Could it gobble up the Paris zoo? All it needs is a reason. We know the blob can find a way.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan contributed to this report.

WPBloom

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