Slime Molds: Things of Beauty

Yet another group of exquisite creatures. Slime molds are beautiful and fascinating in their complex growth. These molds are possibly the earliest creatures to emerge on land. The whole NY Times article is worth reading, as is this slide show. They’re a good example of why the beauty of many science photographs is a joy.

Finding its way In an experiment, a slime mold in the outside chamber made it to an oat flake in the central chamber of a maze.

If you want to find life forms that truly seem otherworldly, your local forest is a much better place than your local cineplex. It is home to creatures that are immensely old, fundamentally bizarre and capable of startlingly sophisticated behavior. They are the slime molds.

Slime molds are a remarkable lineage of amoebas that live in soil. While they spend part of their life as ordinary single-celled creatures, they sometimes grow into truly alien forms. Some species gather by the thousands to form multicellular bodies that can crawl. Others develop into gigantic, pulsating networks of protoplasm.

While naturalists have known of slime molds for centuries, only now are scientists really starting to understand them. Lab experiments are revealing the complex choreography of signals in some species that allows 20,000 individuals to form a single sluglike body.

….By analyzing the DNA of different slime mold species, researchers are reconstructing their evolutionary history, which turns out to reach back about a billion years. Since all known slime molds live on land, that suggests that they were early pioneers, arriving hundreds of millions of years before animals or plants.

“They may be as old as the terrestrial ecosystem,” said Sandra Baldauf, an evolutionary biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden.

3 thoughts on “Slime Molds: Things of Beauty

  1. I love slime molds! Not only are they cute as bugs — well, let’s be honest, they’re cuter — but they literally embody one of the most important phases in the evolution of terrestrial life. The transition of life from sea swimmers to land crawlers seems tame compared to the leap from masses of single cells to multicellular structures. This titanic event is mere child’s play for the mighty slime mold.

    You and I don’t have any choice: we’re fixed clumps of cells that can’t survive alone. Slime molds are single cells that come together when the urge takes them to make multicellular magic. Slime mold aficionado John Bonner remarks that they are “no more than a bag of amoebae encased in a thin slime sheath, yet they manage to have various behaviors that are equal to those of animals who possess muscles and nerves with ganglia — that is, simple brains.” They’re not really molds, they just resemble molds when they come together to form fruiting bodies, big blobs on stems that rise up and pop, sending individuals flying far in search of yummy molecules.

    Back in the 70s or 80s I saw a Nova program titled “Dr. Bonner and the Slime Molds” that was a fascinating hour-long exploration of these li’l proto-critturs. I haven’t been able to find a complete recording of the show (my own videotape copy is missing a few minutes) but here’s a brief glimpse of Bonner’s amazing videography:

    Slime molds rock!

  2. I think that the beauty of slime molds is ill-served by the “yuck factor” of their name, be it ever so descriptive.

    I realize that these venerable life forms have agendas od their own and would not pause in their quest for yummy molecules to accept a more attractive name. And yet–Multicellular Pioneers? Amoebae Adventurers? Proto-communal evolutionaries!

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