Slime molds see the light

Flashing lights may confuse humans, but they seem to have the opposite effect on amoeboids.

Slime mold in action: thousands of single-celled organisms, acting as one.
Jerry Kirkhart, Flickr

Flashing light seems to sharpen the decision-making abilities of slime mold, according to new research from Australia.

Slime molds (Physarum polycephalum) comprise a large collection of amoeba-like single-cell organisms all joined together and functioning as a self-organised colony. The colonies exhibit the ability to act in a coordinated manner towards a single end – navigating a course towards food, for instance.

In the wild, slime molds prefer dark places, and move away from sunlight, a process that can only happen slowly. A study conducted Bernd Meyer and colleagues from Monash University in Melbourne sought to replicate real world conditions for the molds by exposing them to the sort of intermittent light bursts they would normally encounter during the day.

Given two pathways to food sources – one dark and stable, the other intermittently illuminated – the slime molds reached their goals more efficiently when using the partially lit route.

To Meyer, the flashing light represented ‘noise’, or disruption, to the mold’s collective operating system. The result “reveals that noise in self-organised decision making is a fundamental driver for the ability to flexibly adapt behavior in changing environments,” he says.

In the study, published in the journal PLOS One, he notes that although more research is needed, results so far fit mathematical models designed to describe the decision-making abilities of other self-organised systems, such as ant nests, bacterial colonies, and humans.

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