When presented with oat flakes arranged in the pattern of Japanese cities around Tokyo, brainless, single-celled slime molds construct networks of nutrient-channeling tubes that are strikingly similar to the layout of the Japanese rail system, researchers from Japan and England report January 22 in Science. A new model based on the simple rules of the slime mold’s behavior may lead to the design of more efficient, adaptable networks, the team contends.
Every day, the rail network around Tokyo has to meet the demands of mass transport, ferrying millions of people between distant points quickly and reliably, notes study coauthor Mark Fricker of the University of Oxford. “In contrast, the slime mold has no central brain or indeed any awareness of the overall problem it is trying to solve, but manages to produce a structure with similar properties to the real rail network.”
The yellow slime mold Physarum polycephalum grows as a single cell that is big enough to be seen with the naked eye. When it encounters numerous food sources separated in space, the slime mold cell surrounds the food and creates tunnels to distribute the nutrients. In the experiment, researchers led by Toshiyuki Nakagaki, of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, placed oat flakes (a slime mold delicacy) in a pattern that mimicked the way cities are scattered around Tokyo, then set the slime mold loose.
Initially, the slime mold dispersed evenly around the oat flakes, exploring its new territory. But within hours, the slime mold began to refine its pattern, strengthening the tunnels between oat flakes while the other links gradually disappeared. After about a day, the slime mold had constructed a network of interconnected nutrient-ferrying tubes. Its design looked almost identical to that of the rail system surrounding Tokyo, with a larger number of strong, resilient tunnels connecting centrally located oats. “There is a remarkable degree of overlap between the two systems,” Fricker says.
The researchers then borrowed simple properties from the slime mold’s behavior to create a biology-inspired mathematical description of the network formation. Like the slime mold, the model first creates a fine mesh network that goes everywhere, and then continuously refines the network so that the tubes carrying the most cargo grow more robust and redundant tubes are pruned.
The behavior of the plasmodium “is really difficult to capture by words,” comments biochemist Wolfgang Marwan of Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany. “You see they optimize themselves somehow, but how do you describe that?” The new research “provides a simple mathematical model for a complex biological phenomenon,” Marwan wrote in an article in the same issue of Science.
Fricker points out that such a malleable system may be useful for creating networks that need to change over time, such as short-range wireless systems of sensors that would provide early warnings of fire or flood. Because these sensors are destroyed when disaster strikes, the network needs to efficiently re-route information quickly. Decentralized, adaptable networks would also be important for soldiers in battlefields or swarms of robots exploring hazardous environments, Fricker says.
The new model may also help researchers answer biological questions, such as how blood vessels grow to support tumors, Fricker says. A tumor’s network of vessels start out as a dense, unstructured tangle, and then refine their connections to be more efficient.