Brainless Slime Has a Doozy of a Superpower

From finding its way out of a maze to picking healthy food options, slime has a surprising array of skills. Henri Koskinen/Shutterstock

You'll be forgiven for not having the highest expectations of slime.

Having no brain or nervous system or even more than one cell doesn't invite intrigue. Sure, it's weird — slime is neither plant nor animal nor fungi — but it's a basic kind of weirdness that doesn't beg us to get to know slime better.

The thing is, we may have vastly underestimated the charms of humble slime. The single-celled amoeba is so much more than the sum of its admittedly sparse parts.

A new study conducted by researchers at Centre for Research on Animal Cognition in France suggests slime has a surprisingly powerful talent — a superpower, if you will: Although brainless, slime actually learns from its environment by slurping on it and then passing on that information through its veins.

(You didn't expect it to fly, did you?)

For their research, scientists focused on just one of the world's 900 or so species of slime mold: Physarum polycephalum.

That‘s a big name for a single-celled blob, although its multiple nuclei make the P. polycephalum a bit of a research darling.

In fact precious experiments on it yielded some eye-opening results — like the fact that slime communicates with other slime. And when they do, they pass on important information about specific environments.

Like, for instance, this corner of the basement is too salty. (Slime hates salt.) Or there's a lovely patch of bacteria in the high school locker room. (Yummy!)

Close-up of slime mold on dead wood.
Slime can alert other slime-kind to the whereabouts of a savory meal. PHOTO FUN/Shutterstock

But how does that information flow without a little cerebral input? That may be where slime ramps up the intrigue factor, and how the French team may have finally found an answer: Slime learning takes place in the veins.

For the experiment, they observed P. polycephalum quietly going about its slime business. As it oozed over different substances, the slime absorbed bits of it directly into the veins. Gross. Yummy. Salt!

And those environmental delights — or perils — were passed on to other slime when they met and fused their venous networks.

The next slime could then take the road less salted without actually having travelled it before.

It may be the ultimate in collective intelligence — passing along information without the assistance of a central processing unit.

And it wouldn't be the first time slime has surprised us with its smarts. Previous research shows that slime is actually good at solving mazes. They don't teach you that in slime school.

"Slime molds are redefining what you need to have to qualify as intelligent," Chris Reid, a biologist at the University of Sydney, told Scientific American.

Reid's 2012 study found that slime relied on "externalized spatial memory" to navigate its surroundings — leaving a trail of goo in its wake to recognize where it's been before.

The latest research suggests that not only can slime "think" on its own, recording experiences in its veins, but even more importantly, it passes on those experiences to others through the original World Wide Web — its very veins.

Perhaps even more astounding is the fact that these brainless organisms can actually teach us a few things about ourselves.

No, we probably won't ever be able to understand something simply by oozing over it. But slime is forcing us to re-think how we define intelligence — and maybe even give the chronically underappreciated bit of goo in the basement corner its due.

After all, we too, were once humble slime.