Slime Mold 'Biocomputer' Maps Ancient Roman Roads

A new study puts an archeological twist on a single-cell organism's unique path-finding abilities.

And now for something completely different....

For a few decades now, scientists have been studying a particular kind of "slime mold" that is able to process information and solve complex problems - despite being a primeval, single-cell organism.

For instance, expanding slime molds can navigate complex mazes to find the optimum route to food, and they leave chemical trails that function as a kind of memory. The organism has no brain or nervous system, yet appears to reason and remember in ways that science doesn't quite understand.

Slime Mold Solves Mazes

A specific sort of slime mold - Plasmodium polycephalum to its friends - is back in the news this week with a new report out of Britain. According to the study, the slime mold was able to accurately imitate the development of Roman roads dating back to the 1st century BCE.

Th The researchers discovered that the mold - tested within a computer-aided simulation - sussed out the most efficient network of roads for a particular area in the Balkans 2,000 years ago. In fact, the slime mold's network matched up with the actual roads that historians believe the Romans built during that era.

What's particularly compelling about the results is that the mold was able to solve certain mapping dilemmas that even the most advanced computer simulations can't quite crack, according to the paper's co-author Andrew Adamatzky, a professor in unconventional computing from UWE Bristol: "Research done during the last decade has shown that the slime mold can physically imitate technological artifacts and processes in a variety of ways undetected by conventional computational methods."

Living Computer Created with Slime Mold?

Researchers in Japan are also exploring slime mold's odd information-processing abilities, and have demonstrated that the organism has potential utility in designing urban transportation systems, or even as logic circuits in bio-computers modeled after the human brain.

The paper from the British team, "Slime Mould Imitates Development of Roman Roads in the Balkans" was published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

The future, apparently, belongs to slime.


It might sound a bit cramped, but there's an entire world of organisms that can call a drop of water their home. And, up close, they look practically out-of-this-world. Each year, the Nikon Small World competition sets out to collect some of the best microphotography. Take a look at some of this year's most stunning images of creatures that live in water. This photo from Dr. Jan Michels of Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel in Kiel, Germany shows Temora longicornis, a marine copepod, from its ventral view at 10 times magnification.

SEE MORE PHOTOS: It's a Nikon Small World After All

This microphotograph shows the diatom Melosira moniliformis at 320 times its size.

This algae biofilm photographed up-close makes what's usually referred to as "pond scum" look like art.

This Philodina roseola rotifer was alive and well when this microphotograph was taken.

This microphoto shows a water flea flanked by green algae.

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Warfare in a water droplet! This microphoto shows a Hydra capturing a water flea at 40-times magnification.

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One of the ultimate human pests -- the mosquito -- begins life as larvae, here shown suspended in a single droplet of water.

Ever wonder what sex between two freshwater ciliates looks like magnified at 630 times its actual size? Now you know!

This freshwater water flea is shown at 100 times its actual size.

Closterium lunula, a kind of green alga, is shown here. This particular specimen came from a bog pond, according to the photographer.

While it may resemble a visitor from outer space, this is what a zebrafish embryo looks like under a microscope, three days after being fertilized.

This microscopic crustacean appears yellowish-orange because it is mounted in Canada Balsam with crystals and other artifacts.

A white-spotted bamboo shark's embryonic pectoral fin makes for a stunning image under a microscope.

SEE MORE PHOTOS: It's a Nikon Small World After All