Slime molds are unusual organisms formerly considered fungi but which have recently intimidated scientists into classifying them in a separate kingdom, the Amoebozoa. They share characteristics of plants and animals, much like Marlon Brando in his later years. Unlike Brando, they feed on bacteria, yeasts and fungi. There are more than 900 species occurring in damp, dark environments all over the world. They usually are found on the forest floor or on rotting logs but also inhabit air conditioners, so go check the filter. Now.
This particular slime mold is a member of the species Fuligo septica, whose common names are “dog vomit slime mold,” which is not a nice name, and “scrambled egg slime,” which is only a little better. Like many slime molds, Fuligo regularly transforms itself from a single-celled to a multi-celled organism. When food is abundant, Fuligo exists in a single-celled state, but when food runs short individual cells aggregate to form a large mass called a plasmodium (as in the picture), losing their cell walls in the process and forming what is essentially a bag of cytoplasm with thousands of nuclei. Although the Fuligo plasmodium generally reaches a maximum size of about 8 inches, some species grow to as much as several square meters, plenty big enough to devour a medium-sized human.
You might think you’d be safe from being eaten by a slime mold if you just keep away from it, but in fact the plasmodium is able to move about in search of food. Careful observation of a slime mold’s cytoplasm reveals that it streams steadily back and forth within the plasmodium. When more cytoplasm flows in one direction than the other, the plasmodium advances. Slime molds are able to sense the presence of food and slither toward it. However, since the cytoplasm flows at a maximum speed of 1.35 mm per second, it’s generally not difficult to outrun a slime mold, even if it’s very hungry.
Nevertheless, slime molds show a devious intelligence that makes it obvious that they plan to take over the world.
As John Tyler Bonner, who has spent his career studying slime molds, put it, “Slime molds are no more than a bag of amoebae encased in a thin slime sheath, yet they manage to have various behaviors that are equal to those of animals who possess muscles and nerves with ganglia—that is, simple brains.”
This has been borne out in experiments conducted primarily in Japan, which as you know has already endured attacks by Godzilla and Mothra.
For example, a team of researchers placed the slime mold species Physarum polycephalum in a maze and demonstrated that it was able to find its way to a strategically-located piece of food using the shortest possible route. This skill will be highly useful when slime molds engage in urban warfare.
Slime molds are also able to form memories and tell time. When another group of researchers subjected a slime mold to cold and dry conditions at 60-minute intervals, it learned to anticipate the unpleasant stimulus and respond before the stimulus was actually applied. When favorable conditions were restored, it continued to retreat every 60 minutes, demonstrating simple memory and the ability to anticipate how an enemy might attack.
In the most chilling experiment of all, researchers arranged oat flakes on a flat surface in such a way that they corresponded to the locations of Tokyo and 36 surrounding towns, then set loose a slime mold on the model metropolis. As it extended filaments to the various food piles the slime mold created a complex, integrated network almost identical to that of the existing train system. The experiment has since been repeated, with similar results, in Britain and Spain. The implication is obvious—slime molds intend to infiltrate our public transportation systems and move at will throughout our cities without paying full fare.
Faced with an implacable enemy, many people turn instinctively to appeasement to try to save themselves. Such must have been the motivations of the scientists at the University of the West of England who measured the electrical signals that a slime mold produced as it moved across an array of microelectrodes. Assigning emotions to each discrete set of signals—e.g., joy when the slime mold was feeding and anger when it was exposed to light—the researchers hooked the electrodes to a human-appearing robot in a bowler hat that made facial expressions corresponding to the slime mold’s emotions. Or tried to. Its face doesn’t really move very much. In any event, they claim that this is the first time a bag of cytoplasm has been able to express its inner feelings using a robot interface and they’re probably right.
Don’t rely on the failed Obama administration to protect you—they don’t even have a slime mold policy. To be safe, stay in dry, well-lit areas and keep away from oat flakes.