Who doesn’t love a good slime story? Perhaps because various biological slimes and slime molds resemble mucus or other bodily emissions, they have long been featured in science fiction and horror stories. Strange slimes regularly turn up in reality, too though. The most common slime molds are eukaryotic organisms which are essentially single cells that can group together to form gelatinous masses. However, stranger, unidentifiable slimes have been known to seemingly spontaneously appear in nature.
While these unexplained slimes are usually found to be far more interesting than their zoological counterparts, recent research in slime molds has revealed some mysterious properties of these simple, slimy organisms. Earlier this year, a team of scientists found that slime molds are actually capable of a rudimentary type of learning.
The slime molds, Physarum polycephalum, were placed in a type of maze, on one side of which stood a food source. Researchers then placed a chemical deterrent between the slime and the food and found that the slime molds, which have no brains or even neural networks whatsoever, were able to “memorize” and avoid the locations of the deterrent in later ‘runs’ of the maze. Now, surprising new research has shown this learning can be transmitted between slime mold cells.
In their newest experiment, the same researchers subjected slime molds to their chemical maze, and then allowed molds which had “learned” the maze to fuse with molds which had never been in the maze. Their experiments showed that the new, mixed molds were able to navigate the maze as if they had previously navigated it.
According to their data published by The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers believe this means the slime mold cells are actually sharing learned information between them:
We report a new feature of cell fusion never described before: the transmission of learned behaviour from one cell to another. […] Our results provide strong experimental evidence that slime moulds exhibit transfer of learned behaviour during cell fusion and raise the possibility that similar phenomena may occur in other cell–cell fusion systems.
This experiment raises questions about some of the unexplained mysteries of biological cells. If this experiment can be replicated in other organisms’ cells, it could confirm long-held theories about cellular memory or genetic learning. While memory and learning have long been thought to be an aspect of our minds, this study could prove that other types of cells or maybe even DNA are capable of learning and are far more mysterious than we know.