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Does slime know the way to Calgary?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 14, 2013 08:18 AM

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Biocomputers are a cool concept that can be hard to get your head around. Popular Science has an eye-opening, accessible look at the different ways scientists are manipulating living organisms to perform calculations, including using swarms of spider crabs to calculate vectors and creating genetically modified human cells that can perform addition and subtraction.

But if I were to put money on one of these as the technology of the future, it would be slime mold GPS:

If crabs are good at clustering together, a single-celled organism that resides in rotting trees—Physarum polycephalum, or slime mold—is surprisingly adept at making maps. Adamatzky and Selim Akl, a computer scientist at Queens University in Ontario, have spent the past few years using slime mold to map networks.

In one experiment, they took a map of Canada, dropped oat flakes (slime-mold food) on the nation’s major cities, and placed the mold on Toronto. It oozed forth to form the most efficient paths to the cities, creating networks of “roads” that almost perfectly mimicked the actual Canadian highway system.

The article also nicely encapsulates the appeal of biocomputers, which goes way beyond the "wow" factor. Compared to static circuit boards, living organisms make great computers because they're good at learning as they go along (slime mold can find increasingly efficient routes between two points with each iteration of an experiment). They're also a lot heartier than silicon chips which buckle at the idea of a drop of water, opening the possibility of installing computers in environments like the bottom of the ocean or inside the human body.

Bonus video: Watch slime mold swarm over Canada here.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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