Slime Molds Join the Faculty at Hampshire College

Hampshire College appoints some slime molds as scholars-in-residence.

Scholars
No brain? No problem. (ANDREW HART/HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE)


Human beings, technology-minded as we are, have come to understand we’re not the only one of earth’s species to develop solutions for pressing problems. Some of our non-human planet-mates have proven remarkably adept at working out ways to meet their needs, and lately scientists have been making all sort of advance thanks to biomimicry, from the adhesives that let geckos climb walls to painless hypodermic needles based on mosquito bites. Some have suggested it’s time to start returning the favor.

Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts has inaugurated what’s billed as the “world’s first academic program for non-humans.” To that end, they’ve appointed some unusual scholars-in-residence as faculty through 2019: slime molds, or more specifically, Physarum polycephalum. Their alma mater is the Carolina Biological Supply company. It’s unclear if the new faculty are assistant, associate, and/or full professors.

(ANDREW HART/HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE)

Why slime molds? These seemingly simple organisms have been the subject of some amazing research. Physarum is a plasmodia slime mold, which are “basically enormous single cells with thousands of nuclei. They are formed when individual flagellated cells swarm together and fuse,” according to UC Berkeley.

Pysarum polycephalum (ANDREW HART/HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE)

These seemingly simple slime molds do some pretty amazing things.

First of all, they network. “"Plasmodial slime molds are superorganisms, meaning that their self-interest is inseparable from their collective interest” says their Hampshire College liaison, Jonathon Keats. They may even be more advanced than humans in this regard, since, “The same is true of us humans, only our society doesn't realize it yet." 

Recently, Toulouse University’s Research Centre on Animal Cognition (CNRS) made an even more startling discovery: Although slime molds lack completely neurons, they can learn.

Hampshire College’s Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs Eva Rueschmann is excited about the new program, saying, "We are delighted to have representatives of the Physarum genus join our academic community. As they help solve important problems from a non-human perspective, these superorganisms promise to greatly enhance intellectual life on campus by helping us all think about and see the world without our normal human biases."

"Slime molds have navigated complex ecosystems such as forest floors for a billion years, proving themselves to be some of the foremost optimizers on the planet," says Hampshire biology professor and principle investigator Megan Dobro, who’s In charge of the program. She hopes the visiting scholars will eventually help deliver solutions to global problem “ranging from food insecurity to income inequality.” Student research assistants will assist the slime molds, carrying out simulations in petri dishes.

Student Estelle Zhang shares slime mold experiment results (ANDREW HART/HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE)

Keats, for one, is specially looking forward to the superorganisms’ socioeconomic insights: "I anticipate that we'll be communicating their findings to the World Bank and the UN.”

(JONATHON KEATS)

With their physarum at the cutting edge of academic research, project co-investigator Amy Halliday summarizes the goal of the new program: “Bringing together a rigorous interdisciplinary cohort to address urgent human issues from a new vantage point is what this academic program is all about.”

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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

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