I like slime moulds, and so should you.
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.
The beautiful old Waag building is an excellent space for science-related public events. The winding staircase, curved walls and old architecture-style is fertile ground for imagining classical scientists pursuing their work. For the Romantics, where else should you be bringing new creations to life, other than at the top of a wood-panelled, historical tower? Indeed Rembrandt immortalised dissections carried out in the Waag.
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.
Afterwards, scientists, designers and public mingled to discuss ideas and ask questions. I loved thinking of the little flake of slime mould spore material in their dormant state. Ostensibly dry and dead to the eye, but merely waiting. Sensing their surroundings. Unfurling, slowly, responding. Molecular mechanisms begin to cascade, moisture is drawn up. The machinery unfolds. The mould becomes a mobile slime again and reaches for food.
I learned more about the slime mould being used, Physarum polycephalum. It can move as quickly as one centimetre an hour. The giant cells it forms are called plasmodia, and contain several nuclei. As in any microbiology lab, contamination is an ever-present problem and can ruin carefully constructed petridishes, but sometimes slime moulds have used the invading growths of fungi as a scaffolding to climb out of the petridish.
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.
A hacked 3D printer designs structures out of organic material, and the slime moulds redefine these structures. It's a start of a design exploration, bringing together technology and living matter.
So what do these slime moulds look like in action? You can watch a beautiful time-lapse video here.
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