Designer mold takes to the highways

Last week we brought you news of a Japanese experiment involving slime mold recreating the work of railway network designers. It appears that in the world of slimy science, great minds think alike.

Two scientists at the University of West England (based in the same city as the University of Bristol which recently managed to tie light into a knot) have carried out their own experiment, also involving the slime Physarum polycephalum and a sheet with oat flakes.

In this instance, the flakes represented the nine cities in Britain with the largest population. As with the Japanese experiment, the results were close to real life, this time with the mold’s spread mirroring the network of motorways. The only major difference was that in the real world, the north-eastern city of Newcastle is not connected to the main motorway network, a point “corrected” by the mold.

Whether the benefits of including Newcastle on the route outweigh the increased journey time for drivers who are now routed via the city is a matter for road planners to discuss with the mold.

Jeff Jones, one of the two men who worked on the British project, says the key lesson is that the mold is able to make what we’d consider logical networking decisions despite not having intelligence as we know it. That raises the possibility that robots or computers can be used to solve similar problems.