Monday April 24, 2017 Q&A

The blob is an amazing, giant single-cell organism that:


1 is capable of learning and transferring its knowledge

2 makes bubbles when it breathes

3 can change its colors to blend in with those of other blobs

Question related image
Answer 1: The blob is capable of learning and transferring its knowledge. Physarum polycephalum, aka “the blob”, is in a class of its own. This unicellular slime mold, which lives in forest undergrowth, can reach up to several meters squared and move a few centimeters over the course of an hour. It is neither animal, plant nor fungus. And while it is not pretty to look at – it earned its nickname from a horror film after all – it possesses an unsuspected type of intelligence for an organism that lacks a nervous system. The blob is capable of learning and even transferring its knowledge to others of its kind. Take foods for example. Blobs love oat flakes but hate coffee and salt. By forcing them to pass over these repelling yet innocuous substances to get to their favorite food, researchers from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Toulouse discovered that they were capable of a simple form of learning called habituation. After crossing over these foods hesitantly several times, the lab's specimens gradually shed their inhibition. Even more impressive, a blob can transfer its adaptive response to blobs that have not yet encountered the repellent foods through cell fusion. After just three hours, the cells separate, and the novice blob moves just as quickly over the undesired foods as the experienced one does. It is even possible to pair one blob-professor with two or three blob-students. Imagine if this could be applied to humans as well. But that’s not the point of this research. In fact, the researchers are hoping to better understand knowledge transfer in evolution, that is, before cells have even developed nervous systems. And their discovery about the blob raises the possibility that other simple organisms, like viruses and bacteria, can learn in the same way. But the researchers are still trying to determine exactly how the knowledge is transferred. Thus far, they have observed a sort of vein that gradually forms between the two organisms and that may serve as the vector. For more information, watch CNRS researcher Audrey Dussutour’s TedX talk Or read the CNRS article featured in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B