Like an old time carnival show, the Paris Zoological Park’s latest attraction promises a shocking mystery.
Dubbed ‘the blob’, the zoo is hoping to draw in the crowds by featuring a goo-like brainless creature with no mouth and hundreds of sexes, which displays an ability to survive – even thrive – when dissected.
While it is indeed weird, don’t get too excited. ‘The blob’ isn’t something out of science fiction. It’s actually slime mould – or more specifically, an organism known as Physarum polycephalum.
But despite it’s looks, there’s still a lot of cool stuff we can learn from this latest display.
“The blob is a living being which belongs to one of nature’s mysteries”, director of the Paris Museum of Natural History Bruno David told Reuters.
Calling it a mysterious ‘being’ might be overselling it a touch. But there is still a whole lot scientists have learned from watching the growth and movement of this biological oddball in recent years.
Given the misnomer slime mould, it’s easily to dismiss the yellow goo splashed across a log as some boring microbe in need of a good bleaching. To see it so much as move, you’d need to hang around a while, as you can see here.
But don’t let that fool you. It would be worth the wait – especially if you’re a science enthusiast.
Here’s the 101: the 900-odd species of slime mould, of which P. polycephalum is just one, are a taxonomic headache. They’re currently boxed into the Protista kingdom, because where else are you going to put something that isn’t a fungus, plant, bacteria, or animal?
When life is good, they tend to live solitary lives as single cells like amoeba.
On occasion they squish together, forming a wide, branching structure called a plasmodium that can cover several square metres as they search cities to conquer. Well, bacteria to digest at least.
If you thought your experience on Tinder was hard, dating for slime moulds is a nightmare. Cells can only mix-and-match their genetic material if each has a compatible set of genes called matA, mat B, and mat C, each with up to 16 variations.
But the truly fascinating part is their ability to sense and rapidly adapt to their environment – a behaviour we might, for lack of a better word, call learning.
Recent studies have shown how they absorb noxious materials and use this as a kind of memory system, helping them determine whether to avoid contact with them in the future. They can even pass this ‘knowledge’ on to other individuals when they fuse.
The slow creep of their branching bodies isn’t merely some blind meandering either. Slime moulds are able to pick paths according to algorithms hardwired into their biochemistry in a way that challenges what we think we know about biological intelligence.
Of course, it’s a lot harder for a zoo to promote such a living curiosity by shouting “come see the creeping slime that can solve the Travelling Salesman Problem if you wait around long enough”. So we guess we understand why the zoo came up with the whole ‘mysterious blob’ schtick.
So please, if you’re in Paris, stop by to see the incredible, the awesome, the mysterious ‘blob’. It might not escape and destroy the city, but if you’re patient, it could tell you the most efficient way to navigate its streets.