A Sense of Wonder and Awesome Slime Molds

Mar 30 2011 Published by under Brain & Behavior, Humor

I've never understood the claim that science somehow detracts from the beauty of the natural world.

I think xkcd sums it up the sense of wonder scientists get with a new discovery pretty nicely:

The sense of wonder at a new scientific discovery is similar to but not identical with the "sensawunda" you can get reading science fiction. It's an excitement at learning the previously unknown, at uncovering the mechanisms that underlie the complexity of life and the vastness of the universe, or of discovering an unexpected flower growing in your yard.

But unlike the fantastic but imaginary science of science fiction, the scientific sense of wonder comes from the discovery of how the universe - from quasars in distant galaxies to the smallest viruses* - is organized and functions.

And I think  it goes without saying that slime molds are indeed really cool.


Dog Vomit Slime Mold (Fuligo septica) at China Camp State Park, California.
By Franco Folini on Flickr.

The pretty yellow color is from the pigment  fuligorubin A.  Dog vomit slime molds are also unusually resistant to the toxic metals zinc and cadmium.  There is indeed evidence that fuligorubin pigment can bind the usually toxic metals.**

That's cool not only because it allows dog vomit slime molds to grow in inhospitable environments, but because it suggests slime molds might be used to help reclaim metal-contaminated soils (along with metal-accumulating plants).  The purified yellow pigment could someday be used to develop new treatments for zinc poisoning.

A different species of slime mold can apparently even solve a maze faster than a Japanese graduate student (technical paper)! I'm not sure anyone has tried similar experiments with Fuligo spetica, but just imagine the possibilities: a industrial wasteland reclaimed and ruled over by intelligent yellow overlords.

OK, maybe that's more sensawunda territory. But slime molds are cool. And new discoveries about unusual biochemistry of our fellow Earthly inhabitants are indeed wonderful.

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* And, of course,  even smaller down to subatomic particles. But I think viruses are cooler than muons and gluons.

** A note on the importance checking original sources:

The Wikipedia article about Fuligo septica states:

"The mechanism of this metal resistance is now understood: F. septica produces a yellow pigment called fuligorubin A, which has been shown to chelate metals and convert them to inactive forms"

and cites:

Latowski D, Lesiak A, Jarosz-Krzeminska E, Strzalka K. (2008). "Fuligo septica, as a new model organism in studies on interaction between metal ions and living cells". Metal Ions in Biology and Medicine and Medicine 10: 204–9.

But the conclusions drawn by the authors of that paper (available in Google books) aren't quite as definitive as the Wikipedia article suggests:

Obtained results revealed that pigment fuligorubin A content was higher in Fuligo septica treated with zinc solutions (Figure 2). This could be the evidence of involvement of fuligorubin A in process of zinc ions detoxication and moreover it could ensure tolerance of Fuligo septica to high concentration of zinc and other toxic metal content.  [p.208; bold emphasis added]

There may be another paper out there more clearly demonstrating the function of fuligorubin A, but Wikipedia doesn't cite one and I couldn't find such a paper after a brief search.

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