Information and intelligence: let's meet the Smart Slime

As we talk about information in biology, mind goes through DNA and protein sequences, on the tracks of what we have learned to call “bioinformatics”, along with a fair amount of algorithms, open source methods, coding hacks, genome assemblies, libraries and bugs. Luckily, Biology is much more complex and beautiful than mere green strings, and information in biological systems flows at different scales, involving several processes. And if we can call communication the information transfer between two entities, the capability of a system to learn from environmental information in order to improve its adaptive response, could be fairly (even if a bit boldly) defined as intelligence.

What is intelligence? Where does it rely? How can we measure it? Great questions, that would generate a huge discussion. Far bigger than this small blog. Anyway, I guess that the best option here is to start talking about something very simple. A slimy mold, for instance.

Physarum polycephalum is known as the many-headed slime and, as reported on Wikipedia is a slime mold that inhabits shady, cool, moist areas, such as decaying leaves and logs. Like slime molds in general, it is sensitive to light; in particular, light can repel the slime mold and be a factor in triggering spore growth. The really amazing fact about this slimy fellow, is that many investigations have proved him as capable of the capability to solve complex problems.

The video I am sharing above these lines, is a TED talk held by Heather Barnett. Designer working with bio-materials and artist, Heather Barnett creates art with slime mold, and shows us how much amazing this organism can be.

With a simple, but very effective cell-based information processing system,  P. polycepalum has been proved to quickly find the best path to food through a maze, way faster than me when I had to find the best path to train station from my home through Gràcia. More, the video shows how the mold reconstructed in scale the Tokyo suburban rail system, proving its capability to solve complex problems and tasks.

Of course, to anyone studying cognitive processes at a  molecular level, this organism provides an excellent model, but we may also fetch some good idea for evolutionary biology too. The best way to thread into this is a visit to Heather Barnett’s website, that is provided with many video (there is a youtube channel too), information and references.



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