Slime molds are fascinating organisms in the animal world. Slime mold cells can function independently, but will often aggregate together in a show of multi-cellularity. They are used in experiments ranging from the evolution of multi-cellularity to urban engineering.
A research group at Toulouse University in France found that slime molds can learn. More than that, though, slime molds are capable of passing on their lessons to others. In a simple experiment, a slime mold population was required to cross a bridge in order to reach food. Experimenters added an unpleasant stimulus to an area of the bridge and watched as the slime mold learned to avoid the stimulus. Next, the scientists introduced the experienced slime mold population to another, naïve population, and let them merge. After a reasonable amount of merging time and separation, the naïve cell population exhibited stimulus avoidance behavior like the experienced population. Somehow during the merging process, the naïve cells learned a behavior for a situation that they themselves had never experienced. And this information transmission is occurring without any specialized machinery, like what exists in our brains and nervous system.
This might very well be the ancestral case of learning. Previously, scientists have assumed that an organism needs a brain, even a rudimentary one, in order to learn and communicate what was learned, maybe even memories, to others. However, this experiment throws that assumption out the window. Further research is necessary, particularly with regards to the mechanism of information transfer.
Managing Correspondent: Zane Wolf
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Image Credit: BioInformatica-P.Polycephalum