Let me convince you.
Slime moulds seem to bridge the gap between fungi and animals. In a nutshell, they are a glistening goop that spreads and develops in a webbed network of frilly fingers. But this is an intelligent goop. Slime moulds respond malleably to their environment. They can work out the most efficient shape to morph into in order to reach multiple food sources. Scientists have shown this ability compares favourably to some of the most efficiently planned human transport systems. When times are hard, the slimes can change form to produce fruiting spores, sending its spores away to find better lands. When two slime moulds of the same species meet, they join forces into one large super-slime. Best of all, they seem pleasantly benevolent compared to many other microorganisms. No slime mould has yet proved itself to be a human pathogen. And they not only eat bacteria, they farm it.
So slime moulds are a wonderful piece of the biodiversity puzzle around us. And we're slowly getting to know more about them. They have cropped up in the 2010 Ig Nobels, for instance. But there are some incredible combinations of man-made technology meeting nature, like fabulously weird experiments using slime moulds as living computing interfaces (quick translation: cyborg technology). Andrew Adamatzky's group at the University of West of England have almost given slime moulds a human face.
And on 27th January 2013, I attended an exhibition of slime moulds and 3D printing. It was an interdisciplinary event hosted by the Waag Society, an arts-meets-sciences-meets-design sort of incident. While the supposed schism of the arts and sciences has long been debated and reinvented to zombified death, introducing 'design' as part of interdisciplinary events has crept in on the tides of 21st century technology.
The exhibition showcased the results of a two-day workshop where participants designed with slime moulds and 3D printers. This was to be my first visit to the Waag Society, institute for art, science and technology, and I'll admit, I was wary. I hardly knew much about 3D printing on a small-scale, and how could you design with a living organism? To prepare myself for disappointment, my pessimistic mind conjured up images of an exhibition space containing conceptual sculptures splashed 'artistically' with slime mould goop. There might be a lot of dainty talk using inaccessible artspeak. In short it could be all show, no engagement.
But there was no need for these pessimistic thoughts. There was plenty of show and plenty of engagement.
Inside there was a healthy mix of public, scientists, and designers. A few small tables showed the results of the two-day Bio-Logic workshop. A table held a couple of stewpots serving as simple incubators, and another held an array of petridishes containing yellowish agar and seeded with slime mould spores. A few computers with coding programs. A 3D printer in a modified box which served as a sterile cabinet.
The concept of the workshop had been to challenge the slime moulds by creating specific patterns of food and slime mould in the petridishes. The slime moulds faced logical puzzles. What would they work out as the best routes to the food, the rearrangements of themselves?
A hybrid 3D printer was produced by a meeting of WASP and a Maker's Faire to become something close to a sterile labspace. Read more technical details about the 3D printer here.
This machine was used to print oatmeal food jelly, another thing slime moulds like to eat, in patterns in the petridish plates. The dishes were then seeded with a piece of dormant slime mould. The results will be visible in a few weeks time.
In order to get the patterns delivered, the printer was connected up to Processing, a visual design programme, via intermediatory software. Processing is an open-source artistic programming language, which introduces straightforward rudimentary coding concepts for making pictorals.
The night began with some talks. Maurizio Montalti, bio-conceptual designer, CEO of Officina Corpuscoli, introduced the exhibition night.
Alessio Erioli, assistant professor of architecture and founder of Co-de-it. Thinking that design was too constrained, and should become a wider process, like evolution, he founded Co-do-it to bring together different disciplines.
"The aim of technology is the sophistication of biology," Alessio reflected. "Evolution is the greatest tool we have."
But technology is making new interactions possible. The slide here showed an etching of a motorcar on a grain of salt. Alessio described how matter can now be transformed at the nanoscale, bringing technology to the point where we can apply it precisely to nature. We are already interplaying the two forms. For example, in laboratories flesh is being cultivated on organ-shaped scaffolds in the dream of 3D-printed organs.
As biology and computing and engineering converge, objective engineering will be combined with open-ended creative design concepts.
The moulds can also lay down a trail of physical 'memory'. They can leave crystals behind as chemical signals, marking where they have explored. They can also keep time. When researchers exposed a slime mould to a pattern of regular temperature changes, it learned to anticipate these environmental changes. One visitor asked if the slime moulds could be used to make a 'circuit switch'. And the scientist's answer? Yes! See here for more information.
So what do these slime moulds look like in action? You can watch a beautiful time-lapse video here.