From petri dish to DC: Slime mold studies lead to policy proposals

Hampshire College applies multidisciplinary approach and ‘non-human scholars’ to big problems

  • Slime mold grows in a petri dish as part of an experiment at Hampshire College into addictive behaviors and the opioid crisis. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Hampshire College biologist Megan Dobro stands in front of a map of the Pioneer Valley, the routes of Pioneer Valley Transit Authority busses clearly marked. Dobro was describing the research on display — that of student Gusty Catherin, who wanted to use slime mold to find efficiencies in the authority’s system by placing food for the organism on key stops as well as locations that community members deemed important. GAZETTE STAFF/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • Slime mold grows in a petri dish as part of an experiment at Hampshire College mapping local food deserts. GAZETTE STAFF/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Published: 3/25/2018 11:35:21 PM

AMHERST — Last spring, researchers at Hampshire College raised eyebrows when they enlisted a seemingly unlikely collaborator to solve some of humankind’s most vexing problems: a single-celled, autonomous organism known as slime mold, which Hampshire billed as their first “visiting, non-human scholar.”

Now, almost a year later, that research has yielded policy proposals — which the academics then sent to top Trump administration officials — on problems ranging from border policy to materialism.

“After acclimating, living in their office … we’ve been able to identify problems and means by which to translate those problems into terms the slime mold can process to give policy advice,” said experimental artist and philosopher Jonathon Keats, one of the interdisciplinary project’s collaborators. “I’ve been really pleased by the sheer range of work they’ve been able to achieve.”

Though at first glance the project might seem like a quirky stunt, the research is far from frivolous. The Plasmodium Consortium, as the project is called, represents a scientific interest in what the intelligence of single-celled organisms can tell humans about their own condition — and the Hampshire College researchers are not the only local scientists interested in such questions.

“We’ve been researching microorganisms for a long time as model organisms to tell us something about how genetics work, or hoping to relate to human disease in some way,” said Megan Dobro, an assistant professor of human biology at Hampshire. “I think it’s relatively new to think of them as intelligent beings who can teach us something.”

Brainless brilliance

Slime molds are far from the only microorganism whose intelligence is respected by the scientific community.

Other single-celled organisms with amazing abilities are a group of amoebas called foraminifera, which are characterized by their shells. The organisms build elaborate and durable homes using an organic cement whose power researchers are hoping to emulate. Those capabilities led The Washington Post to run an article about the organisms under the headline, “Brilliance without a brain.”

“I’m biased because I love them and work with them,” said Adriane Lam, a University of Massachusetts Amherst Ph.D. candidate in the geosciences who works extensively with foraminifera plankton as well as the fossil structures they leave behind.

Lam uses insights gleaned from the microorganisms and their architectural and engineering abilities to reconstruct ancient ocean currents. In doing so, she can map how oceans may have changed over time.

That research allows Lam and others to see what the effects of past climate change events were, which in turn can help researchers better understand the effects that climate change might have on the planet and its inhabitants in the future.

“The more research and work we put into understanding these organisms, the better off we will be,” Lam said. “I think a lot of the microfossils don’t get the respect they deserve.”

Finding better routes

Across town, Hampshire’s Plasmodium Consortium is also gathering useful knowledge from the results of single-celled intelligence.

Among the thorny human problems Hampshire students and faculty put in front of their slime mold colleagues were addiction, food deserts and public transportation.

As the Plasmodium Consortium’s “scientific attache,” Dobro worked with students to design experiments that would let the slime mold solve problems. The slime molds, known scientifically as Physarum polycephalum, are single-celled, autonomous organisms that are neither plant, animal nor fungus.

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. They are naturally efficient at finding and distributing resources, growing outward in search of food and, once it is located, leaving in place the branch with the most efficient route between the various food sources.

Last week, Dobro was standing in front of a giant map of the Pioneer Valley in the college’s art gallery, the routes of Pioneer Valley Transit Authority’s buses clearly marked. Dobro was describing the research on display — that of student Gusty Catherin, who wanted to find efficiencies in the authority’s system by placing nutrients on key stops as well as locations that community members deemed important.

The experiment is a bit of a classic when it comes to slime mold. Researchers have previously mapped out efficient routes for everything from Iberian motorways to the Tokyo rail system. Of course, roads can’t be moved, Dobro said.

“But what if we could start over from scratch?” she asked, saying that considering such questions is important. Or, what if the slime mold finds a route that uses existing roads and where PVTA currently doesn’t run buses. That, it turns out, was what happened with Catherin’s experiment.

To get at those questions, that experiment used topographically accurate maps with oats — a delicacy, apparently, for slime mold — placed at important locations, including places without PVTA bus stops like the Hampden County jail and local employer EthosEnergy.

“So she currently put stops there, and slime mold connected them in this beautiful route … which is our proposed new route based on what slime mold told us in a petri dish,” Dobro said, showing off a blue line connecting those two locations with others already on a bus line.

Across boundaries

Those capabilities have lead Keats, the philosopher, to write to the Norwegian Nobel committee to nominate the slime mold for the Nobel peace prize, and to present slime mold’s conclusions on official letterhead to top federal officials: Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, to name a few.

“Our researchers are uniquely qualified to provide policy advice because of their objectivity: As members of the species Physarum polycephalum – a type of plasmodial slime mold – they have none of the prejudices common to human researchers, administrators, and politicians,” Keats wrote to Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of Homeland Security.

Keats then spelled out that policy advice: “Preliminary results from the plasmodial research group suggest that the United States government should not build a border wall, and should replace current national barriers with parklands.”

On other topics, the slime mold was equally direct in its policy suggestions: “that cannabis and its chemical derivatives should be legalized by the United States government,” that there are “significant food deserts in Western Massachusetts,” and that “all infrastructure improvements planned by the Department of Transportation be reviewed by our non-human scholars.”

“Preliminary results from the plasmodial research group suggest that the United States government should protect the environment even to the detriment of short-term economic growth,” Keats wrote to Pruitt.

Big, borderless thinking is the norm for 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.

As a matter of fact, the slime mold work is not the only Keats project involving interspecies knowledge swapping. Keats founded what he calls “The reciprocal Biomimicry Initiative,” which seeks to adapt human technologies to other organisms.

So often, the thinking goes, humans borrow technology from other species — body armor designs based on beetle shells, for example — without giving something back to those organisms “whose innovations we steal.” The project imagines navigation systems for birds, alternative energy sources for plants.

Keats said collaborative projects like Hampshire’s — involving, as it did, everyone from computer scientists and philosophers to biologists and artists — are important for breaking down disciplinary walls and attempting to solve big questions.

“I hope that that is useful, he said. “I think it is. I think it’s necessary in our society to have these bridges and provocations.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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