Computationally Efficient ‘Slime Mold’ Unveiled at Paris Zoo

The Paris Zoological Park, or Parc zoologique de Paris if you feel like speaking to yourself in a French accent, has just unveiled a new exhibit featuring a bizarre, single-celled organism that behaves in many ways like a computationally efficient software program. And while some news organizations are reporting that the zoo’s newly displayed life form, dubbed “the blob,”  is “a mysterious new organism,” according to ScienceAlert, that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s likely, in fact, some species of “slime mold” belonging to the genus Physarum.

A clip of a slime mold at work. Note: this is not from the zoo’s exhibit. 

Regardless of whether or not the Paris Zoological Park’s slime mold is a new species of the eukaryotic organism—more than 900 species of slime mold have been found all over the world—its behavior is still astonishing. And that is not hyperbole.

While some of the headline characteristics of this slime mold include its 720 sexes or its ability to split into multiple organisms and fuse back together, what’s really incredible about this creature is how computationally efficient it is.

The Paris Zoo has just unveiled a new exhibit featuring slime mold (pictured here).

Bernard Spragg. NZ

A slime mold found in New Zealand. Note: this is not from the zoo’s exhibit.

For example, slime mold is exceptionally talented when it comes to the “Shortest path problem,” which calls for “finding a path between two vertices (or nodes) in a graph such that the sum of the weights of its constituent edges is minimized.” Which sounds esoteric as heck, but when applied to a real-world problem, looks like the slime mold somehow naturally duplicating the real layout of the Tokyo transport network when made to find its way between oats laid out like the city and its outlying suburban railway stations. That phenomenon is described in more detail in Heather Barnett’s TED Talk (below), and if you find the twelve minutes to watch it, we guarantee it will blow your mind.

Speaking of mind-blowing, Reuters reports that the director of the Paris Museum of Natural History, Bruno David, said that “[The slime mold] surprises us because it has no brain but is able to learn… and if you merge two blobs, the one that has learned will transmit its knowledge to the other.” Which means that this weird, creeping web of grossness is able to pass on behavioral programming much like animals do.

But that name though, right? “The blob.” It’s actually not clear who at the zoo gave it that name, but whoever did, a grand tip of the hat to them. Not only because the name is fitting, but because it was literally named that the eponymous 1958 sci-fi horror movie starring Steve McQueen.

What do you think of the Paris Zoological Park’s slime mold exhibit? Connect the shortest paths possible between your thoughts in the comments!

Feature image: frankenstoen

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