When you think of mold you probably don’t associate it with intelligence, but some molds can work in pretty complex ways. Professor John Tyler Bonner, who has spent a lifetime studying slime molds, says that he's seen the mold act with behavior similar to animals, as if they have “simple brains.”
It’s no secret that Mother Nature often creates things so complex that we can only marvel at them. Humans get some of our best technologies by studying the way nature has done things, such as creating transportation systems. Millions of years of evolution have gone into developing these systems, from our own nervous systems to ant colonies. A group of scientists in Tokyo decided to recruit slime mold to help them find ways of improving on our own transportation networks.
Atsushi Tero of Hokkaido University used the slime mold Physarum polycephalum to do this. It was done by placing the mold in a central location that represented Tokyo, then placing oat flakes around it where other major cities around Tokyo would be located. Since the mold uses the flakes as food, it would grow towards these “cities.” The last step was to represent real obstacles such as mountains and bodies of water. Tero achieved this by shining bright light on those places, as the mold avoids light.
This whole experiment was done in a dish about 20cm or 7.8 inches in diameter. This was all to scale, of course. The result was actually strikingly similar to the rail system that was already in place in Tokyo.
It’s amazing how a simple mold can be so efficient. On top of mimicking rail systems, the mold can find the most effective way of linking together scattered sources of food, and it can even find the shortest path through a maze, as well as other impressive feats.
Score one for Mother Nature.