Slime in residence at Hampshire College

  • A sample of slime mold with oats, which it likes to eat, at Hampshire College. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Megan Dobro, an assistant professor of human biology at Hampshire College, talks about slime mold and the class she will be teaching next year. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Megan Dobro, an assistant professor of human biology at Hampshire College, talks about slime mold and the class she will be teaching next year. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Above, Megan Dobro, an assistant professor of human biology at Hampshire College, talks about slime mold and the class she will be teaching next year. Behind her is Amy Halliday, the gallery director of the Hampshire College Art Gallery. Top, a sample of slime mold with oats, which it likes to eat, at Hampshire College. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS PHOTOS

  • Amy Halliday, the gallery director of the Hampshire College Art Gallery, talks about the class she and Megan Dobro, an assistant professor of human biology, will be teaching in the fall that uses slime mold as a research tool. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A sign-up sheet to consult the slime mold scholars-in-residence during office hours. HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE/ANDREW HART

  • Estelle Zhang shares her favorite slime mold experiment results while fellow student Augusta Catherin-Sauer looks on. HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE/ANDREW HART

Published: 5/15/2017 9:13:34 PM

AMHERST — In keeping with Hampshire College’s reputation for its interdisciplinary, often quirky curriculum and teaching methods, academics there have founded a scholars-in-residence program for plasmodial slime molds — billed as “the world’s only academic program for non-human species.” 

“It’s a very Hampshire project,” Megan Dobro, assistant professor of human biology, said with a smile.

The slime molds, Physarum polycephalum, are single-celled, autonomous organisms that are neither plant, animal nor fungus. Researchers are hoping to answer complex questions by studying their natural efficiency at finding and distributing resources, Dobro said. The amoebas live in the soil and fuse together to form superorganisms, with each individual organism looking out for the collective benefit of the colony.

“That’s why we got interested, because humans don’t tend to do that,” Dobro said. “We act as individuals but should probably be focused on the good of the whole.”

Despite the ridicule an idea like single-celled scholars may initially face, Hampshire College is far from the only place where slime molds’ impressive optimization has been used to study complex problems. Scientists and engineers have previously used slime molds to model effective transit systems, and computer scientists have used their natural “computing” abilities to study how to develop better information-delivering algorithms.

At Hampshire College, the slime molds aren’t just being used as a metaphor, either; researchers and students are hoping their new amoebic colleagues will be able to help with topics like earthquake modeling, urban planning and border policy.

“Recognizing the slime molds as collaborators or as agents rather than just a tool or metaphor was a way of signaling a serious appreciation of the intelligence nature has to offer, and how it will help us engage with global problems outside of human bias,” said Amy Halliday, director of the Hampshire College Art Gallery and one of the project’s collaborators.

That last bit — “outside of human bias” — is an important aspect of the slime-mold experiments: using them as a way to step away from our own assumptions to address vast, human-caused problems like climate change or pollution.

“Humans have messed up. We need to take a step back and let nature show us the way,” Dobro said.

Brainless collaborators

The idea of using slime molds to tackle elaborate problems came in collaboration with famous Amherst College graduate Jonathon Keats, an experimental artist and philosopher known for radical thought experiments like trying to genetically engineer God in a lab, creating pollination-based pornography for plants and copyrighting his own mind.

Humans, Keats said, tend to view themselves as individuals going it alone. By using slime molds as models, however, he expects people can see how they, too, form part of a larger, superorganism-like system, potentially leading investigators to discover new ways to make the world more equitable and sustainable.

“The idea is a bit of a crazy idea, admittedly, but one that is nevertheless grounded in biology and grounded in our economic situation,” he said. 

For Keats, the almost absurdist humor of having brainless, single-celled collaborators is part of the experiment’s appeal.

“It’s a sign of success because when we laugh, we are put off-guard in a way that we might be perceptive to ideas that we typically are not,” Keats told the Gazette. “I think humor is a really important inroad into conversations that get beyond the polarization that seems to be so completely pervasive in our world today.”

Once people get past their initial shock and confusion at the project, Keats said, the experiments allow them to identify new patterns and think in new ways.

Beyond their utility in starting new conversations, the slime molds can provide answers in microcosm to the largest issues of the day, Keats said. One of those ideas might be studying slime-mold migration as a rough approximation of population redistribution given various models of addressing future food scarcity.

“All of that potentially can happen in a petri dish,” Keats said. 

Dobro supervised several students learning about slime molds this past semester in an independent study, and in the fall will teach a full class that will explore what types of questions researchers and students should ask of the slimy scholars. The following spring, Halliday will organize an art exhibit to explore some of the work being done with the slime molds.

“It’s really getting everyone to think outside their disciplinary box,” Halliday said, ranging from philosophy and engineering to art. “Everybody’s disciplinary rigor will be brought to these experiments.”

Disseminating knowledge

One of the students bringing her expertise to the project is 23-year-old Abby Moore, who is going into her third year at Hampshire College studying bioinformatics.

Much of Moore’s work this year has been experimenting with materials that repel slime molds, like salt or sunlight.

“Who knew there was an organism out there that doesn’t compete with itself?” Moore said, ruminating on the possible information humans can glean from the mutual aid the slime molds display when they fuse together.

One of the questions Moore hoped to put in front of the slime mold was how knowledge, and in particular false information, is disseminated throughout a population.

In the longer term, the project’s investigators want to communicate their findings with organizations like the United Nations, and dream of results like the eventual creation of so-called “biocomputers,” which use biologically derived materials to compute.

“For us nerds, it’s a very exciting and provocative idea,” Dobro said of working together with the college’s unconventional collaborators.

In Keats’ vision, the project will be an ongoing interspecies collaboration that does more than just answer questions.

“It’s more important to live in the question and find other questions, and deeper questions,” he said. “I think these sorts of scenarios allow for that.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.




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