Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Variations on a Theme: Mitosis in Fungi and Animals or, a real cluster-%@!*

by Christopher Molenaar

Greetings, budding biologists! Today, we’re talking about *drum roll* cell division!

I can feel your eyes rolling through the internet. Trust me, though–you didn’t cover this in high school, so bear with me until we get to the fun part. First, we’ll run a crash course on human mitosis, before diving into the odd world of mitosis in single-celled fungi, where cell division can get… weird. Two groups of fungi, ascomycetes and basidiomycetes, have unique ways to divide; not only that, but comparing these organisms to animals suggests an evolutionary history for how mitosis evolved in “us”! Once we describe cell division in human cells, we’ll look at C. albicans(an Ascomycete) and C. neoformans (a Basidiomycete) to see that evolutionary history.

Strap yourselves in.

By this point, you’ve probably taken some sort of high school biology; my guess is you’ve been forced to memorize mitosis (cell division that generates two identical daughter cells) to the point that your mnemonic for IPMAT is ingrained in your mind like any old piece of nonsense trivia. Or, maybe you really enjoyed cell biology, have a strong understanding of cell division, but lack an affinity for social cues and norms. Either way, we’re all very familiar with a figure like this:
We had one cell, and now we have two. Classic mitosis. Notice the nuclear membrane breaking down in Prophase and themicrotubule spindles connecting to the chromosomes. We’ll talk about that later…(Figure from here.)
If you need a brief review, diploid cells (cells with two sets of each chromosome) undergoing mitosis need to 1) condense their genetic material into chromosomes 2) properly separate sister chromatids from these chromosomes into the cellular space of the two new cells and 3) pinch off the cellular membrane to produce two viable daughter cells. There’s a lot more happening, of course, but this is all we’ll focus on here.

In high school biology, I only ever learned about traditional animal mitosis (human mitosis, really); it’s etched in my brain, and yet I never thought to ask any questions about it. Mitosis is this incredibly complex series of interactions between genetic material, the nuclear membrane, the cytoskeleton, and a host of other cell proteins–how did we “get here”? How far back, evolutionarily, does this process go? How much diversity is there for mitosis overall?

In case you were wondering, this is the fun part.

Diagram of kinetochore assembled on
centromere based on electron microscopy.8
To understand the difference between animal and fungal methods of cell division, we need to get into the nitty-gritty of mitosis, focusing on one component of the process: the kinetochore. A kinetochore is a protein structure, built on the chromosome Lego-style from several smaller proteins, that facilitates an interaction between the spindle microtubules and the chromosomes (shown in orange in the image below).2Remember, the spindle microtubules stretch across the cell to bind to the chromosome (shown in green). The kinetochore forms on the centromere (a specific location on the chromosome) as a sort of middle-man for this interaction; in animals, this structure is removed when the cell is not dividing. Generally, the kinetochore has trilaminar architecture: i.e., it has three main layers that interact with different components of the mitotic process.2The inner layer, for example, interacts directly with the chromosomal DNA, and outer proteins interact with microtubules.2  This structuring is mostly conserved in eukaryotes (plants, fungi, animals, etc.), meaning that it’s common across these organisms.3Yet the timingvaries greatly, as do surrounding steps in the mitotic process.

Cell division in C.
albicans 
looks a lot like
division in S. cerevisiae,
shown here.2
What do I mean by “surrounding steps”? While the kinetochore is being assembled and the microtubules are extending, the nuclear membrane (or  envelope) needs to undergo some alterations for effective mitosis–in humans, at least. As shown in the image above, the nuclear membrane breaks down during mitosis in almost all animals–this is termed “open mitosis”.3,4However, this isn’t the only possibility! Other eukaryotes, like fungi, undergo closed mitosis, where the nuclear membrane never breaks down.3,4

Take Candida albicans, for example. C. albicans is a fungi in the Ascomycete phyla, a group that contains other budding yeasts like Saccharomyces cerevisiae (the yeast used for beer, wine, bread, and a bunch of other foods). When diploid C. albicans cells divide by mitosis, the nuclear membrane stays completely intact throughout the process, stretching into the daughter cell space before pinching into two nuclei (shown right)5. Additionally, the kinetochore is fully assembled and attached to microtubules for the entire cell cycle–even when cells aren’t dividing!2Pretty weird, right? When these organisms divide, the separation of genetic material into daughter cells relies on microtubules withinthe nucleus, rather than microtubules coming from outside the nucleus (as in animal mitosis). This is an example from the Ascomycetes; what about other fungal phyla, though?

Well, that’s what got me interested in this topic. A fungus that I study, Cryptococcus neoformans, follows some pretty unique rules compared to the Ascomycetes I just mentioned. C. neoformansis a Basidiomycete–this phylum, sometimes called the club fungi, includes the typical mushroom you would put on a salad. C. neoformans, though, is another single-celled organism, like C. albicans. This fungus has a lot of interesting behaviors, but before I go off on a tangent, let’s talk about how it divides and assembles the kinetochore structure.

Remember, in humans and almost all animals, the nuclear membrane is completely degraded to allow the chromosomes to migrate to opposing sides of the dividing cell; the kinetochore is assembled during mitosis, and is removed in non-dividing cells.2,4However, in some ascomycetous fungi, the nuclear membrane never breaks down, and instead gets pinched off like the cellular membrane during telophase. Additionally, the kinetochore can remain on the centromere throughout the cell cycle.2,6But what does C. neoformans do? Well, it’s a little of both.

In C. neoformans, kinetochores assemble just before mitosis, like in animals.5The inner kinetochore proteins remain on the centromere throughout the cell cycle, but the middle and outer proteins only assemble when the chromosomes cluster during mitosis.2Not only do these structures have different timing of assembly compared to ascomycetes–they take up a completely different location! In Ascomycetes, the centromeres of different chromosomes are clustered in a single location throughout the cell cycle (until chromosomes are split into two recipient daughter cells); as mentioned, the microtubule-kinetochore-centromere complex is maintained even when cells are not dividing in most of these fungi.6,7However, in Basidiomyceteslike C. neoformans, the centromeres are not clustered; instead, these regions of the chromosome are spaced out around the periphery of the nucleus, more similar to the arrangement of genetic material in some animals.2
This is C. neoformans undergoing mitosis. Three things are shown here: degradation of the nuclear membrane (red), clustering/declustering of the kinetochores and centromeres, and microtubules originating from outside the nucleus to direct the genetic material.2
Lastly, a major difference between basidiomycete and ascomycete mitosis, and a similarity between the former and animal mitosis: theC. neoformansnuclear membrane is partially degraded during mitosis.2As the microtubule spindle migrates to the daughter cell (shown at right, next to the star), the nuclear membrane is broken to allow this migration. This is a significant variation from conventional closed mitosis in fungi, where the membrane stays completely intact throughout the entire cell cycle.

In a recent study of C. neoformans, it was suggested that this variety of mitosis is highly reminiscent of animal mitosis, and that mitotic events associated with animals (like kinetochore assembly, opening of the nuclear membrane, and clustering/declustering of centromeres) evolved in the fungal kingdom.2These distinctions in mitosis between ascomycete S. cerevisiae, basidiomycete C. neoformans, and humans are laid out nicely in the image below.
Comparing the mitotic process of an ascomycete, the
basidiomycete C. neoformans, and human cells.2
So there it is: some added spice to traditional human cell division! Mitosis isn’t just an acronym that you have to remember–it’s a complex process with a lot of diversity within eukaryotes! Unfortunately, a lot of foundational biological concepts get reduced and packaged so that they’re more manageable for testing, and cell division is certainly one of these. In biology, though, the more you learn about a concept, the more fascinating it is! Mitosis can be achieved via a spectrum of approaches; understanding the connections between these can give a lot of insight into evolutionary relationships. Perhaps next time I see a cell division figure, I’ll give less groan and more glory to a genuinely incredible biological process.



References

2.  Kozubowski L, Yadav V, Chatterjee G, et al. Ordered kinetochore assembly in the human pathogenic basidiomycetous yeast Cryptoccous neoformansmBio2013, 4(5) 1-8. 
3.  Meraldi P, McAinsh A, et al. Phylogenetic and structural analysis of centromeric DNA and kinetochore proteins. Genome Biology2006, 7(23). 
4.  Przewloka M, Zhang W, et al. Molecular analysis of core kinetochore composition and assembly in Drosophila melanogasterPlosOne2007. 
5.  Kozubowski L, Heitman J. Profiling a killer, the development of Cryptococcus neoformansFEMS Microbiology Reviews2012, 36(1), 78-94. 
6.  Thakur J, Sanyal K. The essentiality of the fungus-specific Dam1 complex is correlated with a One-Kinetochore-One-Microtubule interaction present throughout the cell cycle, independent of the nature of a centromere. Eukaryotic Cell2011, 10(10), 1295-1305. 
7.  Jin Q, Fuchs J, Loidl J. Centromere clustering is a major determinant of yeast interphase nuclear organization. Journal of Cell Science2000, 113, 1903-1912. 
8.  McEwen B, Dong Y, VandenBeldt K. Using electron microscopy to understand functional mechanisms of chromosome alignment on the mitotic spindle. Methods in Cell Biology2007, 79, 259-293.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Priming the Gut: How Organisms Inside Us Can Fight Our Battles

by Nicholas James Walsh

             Microorganisms live almost everywhere imaginable, from the bottom of the ocean, to outer space, to deep inside our bodies. They even play roles in protecting ourselves, inside and out. Microbes live on our skin, hair, mouths, and between our toes, and these miniature creatures often staves off other dangerous microbes that could potentially infect us. This competition puts these “good microbes” on our side, defending us like a small army, who get the benefit of our nutritious micro-environments. Even in the seeming inhospitable environment that is our gut, these microbes, from yeast to bacteria, can flourish and compose what is deemed the “microbiome.” Controlling everything from our weight to our mental health (1), these microorganisms play a larger role in the daily functioning of human beings than previously believed. Imbalances in the usually robust gut microbiome can result in fluctuations in body fat percentage and even alter the signals coursing through our brains.
             It is no surprise, then, that new data constantly emphasizes the importance of retaining a healthy, balanced gut microbiome. One of the main players in the well-being of the gut environment is the microbe Cryptosporidium parvum. C. parvum is a eukaryote, which means it is arguably more similar to human cells compared to the other bacteria in the gut. However, certain infections with C. parvumcan result in an enteric disease called cryptosporidiosis, which causes small intestine disturbance and watery diarrhea. The infection process is common in malnourished individuals, since low-protein diets can lead to a decreased immune response to certain infections—notably cryptosporidiosis (2). It is these populations that tend to have incomplete diets who are most likely to experience dangerous infection with C. parvum. 
             This may seem paradoxical, because the same organism that is vital in maintaining the well-being of the gut can also cause a potentially fatal infection. This phenomenon is seen in many different organisms in the gut, notably in the notoriousEscherichia coli, or E. coli. Various circumstances can lead certain microbes to become infectious, as many strains of these organisms can produce different levels of beneficence or toxicity. For instance, E. coli is abundant in the gut, but a certain strain that has a unique antigen, or small protein, causes massive food poisoning, even to the point of death. This “O antigen” strain is very similar to healthy E. coli, but are different in this small, extracellular protein, which causes the human body to react very negatively to the bacterium when it proliferates in the small intestine (3).
             How then, do we use this to our advantage? Studies have shown that “priming”, or preparing, the gut with helpful bacteria or protozoa can stave off certain common gut infections. A novel technique, called the fecal microbiota transplant, can transfer healthy microorganisms into our guts, where they will take hold and produce a desired result. This can be conducted through both oral and anal methods, which have shown to be approximately equal in efficacy. 
             A famous study showed that when skinny mice were given high-dosage antibiotics (to clear the gut of bacteria), and quickly administered a fecal microbiota transplant of “obese mice” gut flora, the skinny mice develop mild-to-severe obesity, as seen in the figure below (4). From these studies, and others like it, we have gained an understanding of the processes that are heavily controlled by the microorganisms that live inside us. Not everything is determined purely through genetic luck of the draw, but our environment, including the small beings that live within us, can have strong impacts on our physical and mental well-being.
Figure 1. The scheme above shows the process by which a fecal transplant
 can affect the body fat percentage of mice. The microbiome of obese mice can
cause lean mice to accumulate large amount of fat when their microbiomes
 are placed in a sterile lean mouse microbiome.
             In the case of cryptosporidiosis, low-dosage exposure to C. parvumto the human gut is showing promise as a new method to alleviate Cryptosporidium-specific diarrhea in patients, particularly affected children in generally poorer populations.
             To conduct these pseudo-surgeries, the human gut is “blasted” with antibiotics. This kills off a strong portion of the microbiome, which creates gut vacancy that can quickly be occupied by the first organism that can find a niche in it. Though this may seem like a dangerous process, considering the aforementioned importance of maintaining a healthy microbiome in the gut, studies have shown that the composition of the gut is generally very robust, even in responses to stressors like antibiotic hits and diets containing high quantities of sulfur. After disturbance, the makeup of the gut is elastic, and “whips” back to its normal composition in a matter of days, like a slow rubber band. These transplants work by taking advantage of the time window available during this period, where niches in the gut are free, and instead of reverting back to the original gut composition, it becomes slightly modified (5).
             Even in the last ten years, new fecal microbiota transplant techniques have alleviated diseases such as Clostridium difficile infection and diabetes. Though it seems strange, these fecal transplants involve using one of the most unlikely substances to improve your heath—poop. In fact, thousands of labs arounds the United States are using fecal samples to improve the health of individuals. A fecal transplant is similar to a liver or lung transplant: a “defective” gut microbiome is fully or partially replaced with the gut microbiome of a healthy, non-infected individual. Often a general fecal sample is taken from a young, healthy individual with a balanced diet and fully replaces the gut microbiome of the patient, as seen in the image below. This is the method being used to treat C. difficile infection and the like. It is the standard, less risky method to cure generalized gut infection, yet not all enteric diseases can be tackled in the same exact simple manner.
Figure 2. The general process by which a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) occurs.
Simply, the microorganisms in the gut of healthy individuals is placed in a
sterile gut of a patient with a gut-affecting condition.
             The case of C. parvum infection is slightly different—its treatment involves giving low-dosage C. parvum gut injections, which seems counterintuitive. However, the logic applies here is similar to that of your garden variety flu shot. Many shots involve injecting a harmless/modified, or dead, version of the virus or bacterial toxin into the human bloodstream, and the immune system goes through a process of developing memory immune cells to tackle a future infection that mimics that of the flu shot. Because the infection does not pose a biological threat, the immune system can take care of it efficiently and prevent future infection (6). 
The microbiome priming technique follows a similar line of logic. Most infections occur in those with low-protein diets, which leads to a decrease in certain immune responses. Here, these responses are called Th-1 responses and cytokine responses. These interactions by the immune system are critical in halting C. parvum infection. Restoring these responses is key in stopping lethal cryptosporidiosis (6).
            With this in mind, two routes appear feasible in ridding infection: the first is reestablishing a protein-heavy diet, and the second is priming via C. parvuminjection. Many neglected or lower socio-economic populations are unable to maintain a balanced diet, and many lifestyle choice involve low-protein intake, as well. This leads many groups of people to be susceptible to potentially fatal protozoan infection by C. parvum. Often these diets changes are not possible or are otherwise rejected. Therefore, a pragmatic approach to reducing the incidence of cryptosporidiosis is fecal transplantation in these populations. So, use of fecal microbiota transplantation can be a plausible option for those who cannot alter their diets to fit a protein-heavy intake. 
             Not only are these findings about C. parvum infection clinically applicable, but it may pave a new common route for treating gut infections that are tied to microbiota imbalances. Traditional methods to improving gut health usually involve dieting techniques, medication, or other lifestyle changes. These prescriptions may be effective in cases, but disturbances in the gut microbiome are extremely difficult to fix due to their elasticity. With the case of dieting, studies in the past have shown that most diet changes do not permanently alter the gut composition. Even high dairy or sulfur diets over the course of weeks hardly change the organisms abundant in the gut, and when they do change, it seems to be temporary. Exercise and other anti-inflammatory lifestyle approaches are also common route in treating gut infection, particularly related to colitis. Yet these methods are not necessarily a permanent or even effective way to ameliorate gut disturbance symptoms. New evidence related to cryptosporidiosis infection is showing that these “gut vaccines” may be a route for reducing gut disease incidence. Most vaccines are typically seen as bloodstream injections involving dead or broken viruses, but gut priming appears to follow a similar logic and could be just as valid of a medical treatment.
             Because the impact that the gut microbiome has on the human body—which is a growing library of knowledge recently—is seems to be possible to manipulate the makeup of the gut to improve many conditions. Here, it is intriguing that priming the intestines with C. parvum leads to alleviation of the lethal infection caused by the same protozoan. This could pave the way to treating other gut infections related to common microbiome species, like E. colior C. difficile, which appear to be more commonplace in the wake of an aging, susceptible population (figure 3).
Figure 3. The rate by which individuals in the USA are affected with gut-related diseases appears to be increasing with time, particularly in older populations. Because many treatments to other diseases, like cancer, involve unintentional gut dysbiosis, colitis rate seem to increase, which makes FMTs a popular and effective solution to gut dysbiosis.


Works Cited:

1)     Mangiola F, Ianiro G, Franceschi F, Fagiuoli S, Gasbarrini G, Gasbarrini A. Gut microbiota in autism and mood disorders. World J Gastroenterol 2016; 22(1): 361-368
2)     Cryptosporidium Pathogenicity and Virulence; Maha Bouzid, Paul R. Hunter, Rachel M. Chalmers, Kevin M. Tyler; Clinical Microbiology Reviews Jan 2013, 26 (1) 115-134; DOI: 10.1128/CMR.00076-12
3)    Sarkar S, Ulett GC, Totsika M, Phan M-D, Schembri MA (2014) Role of Capsule and O Antigen in the Virulence of Uropathogenic Escherichia coli. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94786. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.00947861. 
4)    Kulecka M, Paziewska A, Zeber-Lubecka N, Ambrozkiewicz F, Kopczynski M, Kuklinska U, Pysniak K, Gajewska M, Mikula M, Ostrowski J. Prolonged transfer of feces from the lean mice modulates gut microbiota in obese mice. 2016;13(1):57.
5)     Kelly CR, Khoruts A, Staley C, Sadowsky MJ, Abd M, Alani M, et al. Effect of Fecal Microbiota Transplantation on Recurrence in Multiply Recurrent Clostridium difficile Infection: A Randomized Trial. Ann Intern Med. ;165:609–616. doi: 10.7326/M16-0271
6)   Bartelt LA, Bolick DT, Kolling GL, Roche JK, Zaenker EI, Lara AM, et al. (2016) Cryptosporidium Priming Is More Effective than Vaccine for Protection against Cryptosporidiosis in a Murine Protein Malnutrition Model. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 10(7): e0004820. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0004820 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Slime Mold Blog Post

by EG


From here
“Slime mold 2020!” “Elect Physarum polycephalum to make America great again!” Have you ever found yourself deeply concerned about the current leadership of the country? Have you ever been ashamed over the lack of intelligence possessed by the man sitting in the highest office of our nation? Worry no more! In this blog post, I will present a viable alternative to the current bozo who spends all of his time everywhere but Washington: the slime mold, Physarum polycephalum. P. polycephalum is a protist that has demonstrated the mastery of efficiency, the capacity to learn, and the ability to solve complex problems, all of which are qualities lacking in the current administration. If change is what you’re looking for, fear no more, Physarum polycephalum is on the scene.
You may find yourself asking, “What are protists?”. They are an immensely diverse group of organisms with only one defining characteristic: they are all classified as eukaryotic. There are many well-known organisms, like amoeba and algae, that fall under the category of protist. To be considered a member of the kingdom Eukarya, an organism must have highly organized cells with a nucleus containing genetic information and complex organelles to carry out cell processes. However, unlike human beings, protists are composed only of a single cell. With that, cell similarities virtually stop.
A simple description is that protists are anything that cannot be classified as animal, plant, or fungus. As you can imagine, that definition encompasses a wide range of diversity. For nutrition, protists can either use light energy via photosynthesis, similar to the process used by plants, or they can use energy in the form of nutrients “eaten” by the cell. In most cases, protists also have organelles called mitochondria that, if anyone remembers high school biology, are the powerhouses of cells, and act as a currency exchange. This exchange turns nutrients into the cell recognized currency of ATP. Even so, some protists lack mitochondria, but this typically only occurs in anoxic conditions. In which case, the organism uses a hydrogenosome that functions in a similar way to mitochondria. In addition, the diversity seen in this taxa carries over to reproduction. Asexual reproduction via budding, is most common, but sexual reproductive cycles have been observed, they just remain poorly studied.
As a member of the very diverse group described above, Physarum polycephalum has a diverse range of characteristics. As previously noted, it is a slime mold, so named because it leaves behind a thick mat of extracellular slime when it moves. It is a pretty yellow color that eats fungal spores, bacteria, and various other microorganisms. Already it sounds better than the orange cheeto currently entrenched in the White House, right? It spends most of its life in a plasmodium form. While in this form, the microbe eats, divides by mitosis, and remains largely sedentary. When nutrients become rare, the plasmodium goes into starvation mode, during which motility increases rapidly and mitotic division decreases. If the plasmodium is unable to locate nutrients, a majority of the organism will desiccate and spore formation will initiate. These spores are formed in structures called sporangia, which are designed to burst when agitated, thus spreading the spores to new, hopefully nutrient-abundant, environments. The spores can then survive for an indefinite amount of time until nutrients become available. This method of reproduction ensures the survival of the species (Guttes). While the mold is good at surviving, it has also been shown to be extremely smart through rigorous testing.
One good quality to have if you’re attempting to run a country is intelligence. Otherwise, things might get out of hand and you could end up needing to be babysat by your co-workers. A key requirement for intelligence is the ability to learn and change behavior based on prior outcomes, and surprisingly, Physarum polycephalum has shown this quality. The ability to learn has been traditionally regarded as a trait found only in organisms with higher order thinking and even then, not in every case. One specific type of learning is habituation: the diminishing physical or emotional response to a repeated stimulus. Human brains are great at demonstrating habituation. For example, the initial shock of learning that a presidential candidate has no decorum or tact caused waves of anger, but by now, we’ve just come to expect it and there is a progressively smaller reaction as each new idiotic moment comes to pass. P. polycephalum is no different. In a groundbreaking study by Boisseau et al., the data suggested that the mold displayed habituation to an unpleasant, but not harmful, stimulus.
To obtain these results, the authors cultured the mold on an agar plate and connected the original plate to a second plate containing a preferred food source by building an agar “bridge.” On average, it took the mold two hours to move from the first plate to the second plate using the bridge. Once the average time it took to move had been established, the agar bridge was filled with quinine and/or caffeine, both of which are compounds that irritate the mold, but do no harm to it. The same mold that initially took two hours to cross the pure agar bridge took over twice as long to cross the quinine/caffeine bridge, and even so, crossed the bridge in a thin line in an attempt to avoid the irritant. However, when the experiment was repeated multiple times with the same mold cultures, bridge-crossing times significantly decreased, and eventually matched the initial pure agar bridge-crossing times. These results suggest that the slime mold learned that even though the quinine and caffeine were unpleasant, the compounds weren’t going to hurt it and could be crossed to reach a food source.
Another requisite trait to have as the leader of a country is the ability to think on your feet and solve problems. These slime molds also have the capacity to problem solve using their past experiences as a reference point, if being able to learn and share knowledge wasn’t cool enough. Problem solving is another skillset that has previously been relegated to higher functioning organisms only. Again, human beings are generally pretty good at problem solving. We can easily adjust our environments to be more favorable for our survival; if we’re cold, we put on a sweater, or if we’re angry, we spew vitriol onto the internet via Twitt-- wait, never mind, that doesn’t solve anything. However, this mold is out to prove that instead of throwing a temper tantrum when things don’t go as planned, it can calmly solve the problem to get the desired outcome.
In an experiment done by Reid et al., it was shown that this organism relies on spatial memory to solve a U-shaped trap, a problem often used to test autonomous navigational ability in robotics. The way the test was set up removed the ability of the slime mold to rely on chemoattractant gradients to guide its movement towards food, which is what it typically uses to navigate. If you remember to a few paragraphs back, you’ll recall that the mold leaves behind a thick layer of extracellular slime as it moves. The authors noticed that when the organism is foraging for nutrients, it strongly avoids that extracellular slime. However, when all of the new territory has been explored, the plasmodium loses its aversion to the slime and will cease its avoidant behavior. The authors concluded that the mold was “choosing” to not go where the slime was present because it signaled that area had already been explored.
From here
Using that information, the authors modified the U shaped trap for their own purposes. The U-shaped trap put a desirable food source behind a U-shaped barrier. If the mold tried to rely on classic chemoattractant signals, it would repeatedly run into the barrier and remain hungry. If it could problem solve and work around the barrier, it would signal that the mold successfully used its spatial memory to escape the trap. Turns out, the mold did just that. Ninety six percent of the plasmodia reached the food within the experimental time limit of 120 hours. I wonder what would happen if we placed a certain president in a U-shaped trap. Would he use his brain to get out, or just sit down and say the trap is rigged against him? I’m inclined to choose the latter-- there’s naught in the way of a brain. Not a slime mold, though! Those guys actually get things done.
If it was even still a question of who (or what) would make a better president, consider the fact that slime molds are just plain efficient. Evolution demands that every resource is put to use, so it’s just second nature for the mold. Efficiency gets it done. As a president, you need to be able to get things done in a timely manner in a way that’s beneficial to the most people. A lack of efficiency can lead to the waste of precious resources and create a plethora of miscommunication. Ring a bell for anyone? Physarum polycephalum understands this and actively seeks to maximize its efficiency because it increases the likelihood that it will survive to propagate, thus keeping it fit and able to lead the country.
Think back to the study done by Boisseau et al. where P. polycephalum became habituated to quinine and caffeine. The researchers took their experiments a step further and tested how long the organism remained habituated to the chemicals. In a shocking development, they found that the mold had a long term memory and could pass their habituation on to other “virgin” molds that had never encountered caffeine or quinine. Even when the habituated mold was mixed with virginal mold in a 1:9 ratio, the entire new fusion mold became habituated to the chemicals. Further research is required to determine by what mechanism the transfer of knowledge occurs, but in the case of leadership, do we really care about how knowledge gets passed on or just that it does? Unless you’re a certain person obsessed with emails. Then it matters; it matters very much.
Even more proof of the mold’s capacity for efficiency was demonstrated by researchers in Tokyo. Through their research, they showed that Physarum polycephalum is more efficient than some of the world’s leading engineers. The mold will always form the shortest pathway between two food sources to optimize resources. To test this mechanism, researchers set up food on agar to mimic the major city centers of the greater Tokyo area and allowed the mold to grow. The connective filaments of the mold matched the public transportation, including roads and subways, present in and around Tokyo at a high rate, and was found to be even more efficient than the current city design (Wantanabe).
From here
At this point, there should be no doubt about who or what would make the best supposed leader of the free world. Slime molds, members of the domain Eukarya and kingdom Protist, have got it all. They’ve proven to have the capacity to learn, demonstrated a high intelligence, and are masters of efficiency. They doesn’t throw temper tantrums, unleash juvenile tweetstorms, or waste billions of taxpayer dollars. Slime molds are pretty to look at, just want to live their lives, and for you to do the same. Slime molds aren’t an ugly orange color, they don’t have any hands over which to obsess about their size, and would never engage in “locker room talk.” I don’t know about you, but I personally welcome a new era with the supreme slime mold overlord, Physarum polycephalum.


References

Guttes, E., Guttes, S., and Rusch, H.P. (1961). Morphological observations on growth and differentiation of Physarum polycephalum grown in pure culture. Developmental Biology 3, 588–614.

Boisseau, R.P., Vogel, D., and Dussutour, A. (2016). Habituation in non-neural organisms: evidence from slime moulds. Proc. R. Soc. B 283, 20160446.

Reid, C.R., Latty, T., Dussutour, A., and Beekman, M. (2012). Slime mold uses an externalized spatial “memory” to navigate in complex environments. PNAS 109, 17490–17494.

Watanabe, S., Tero, A., Takamatsu, A., and Nakagaki, T. (2011). Traffic optimization in railroad networks using an algorithm mimicking an amoeba-like organism, Physarum plasmodium. Biosystems 105, 225–232.