The Wedneday Post (27/1/10)

Hey guys I found another cool one this week. A Japanese lab has set free a mould that has taken over (a map of) Tokyo!!!

This is the kind of science I really like, just on face value its ridiculous but if you really look at it its pretty ground-breaking stuff. Essentially the Japanese team used a mould called Physarum polycephalum that exists as a single cell that throws out branches in all directions like a fan looking for nutrients. If the branch, or plasmodium, hits nutrient then the branch becomes thicker and a small nodule is established which then sends out further plasmodia. If a branch does not find food it shrinks until it vanishes.

The Japanese group simulated a map of Japan on growth media by using a bright light border for the coast, borders and inaccessible terrain (Physarum polycephalum will not grow in the presence of light) and placed oats at the sites of major cities in the greater Tokyo area then inoculated the media at Tokyo.

Initially the mould grew slowly but once the branches had found a few oats a definite network was being established. By the end the two network (mould Vs actual train) look remarkably similar.

On the left is the actual plate and mould growth. The dark areas indicate areas suitable for rail transport and the white areas are either ocean or unable to support railway. On the right are ‘stick-and-ball’ diagrams of the mould network Vs the actual network in use. Picture modified from paper (linked at top).

The researchers converted the growth and resultant network into a mathematical relationship that they believe will make it easier to plan networks in the future. The reason this is so important is that the mould’s network was simpler and more efficient than the existing network. It’s hoped that the lessons learned from natural networkers, like the mould, will increase the efficiency of newly built systems.

Tero, A., S. Takagi, et al. (2010). “Rules for biologically inspired adaptive network design.” Science 327(5964): 439-42.

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