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Molds and Map Making

When presented with oat flakes arranged in the pattern of Japanese cities around Tokyo, single-cell slime molds constructed networks of nutrient-channeling tubes that are quite similar to the layout of the Japanese rail system, with a larger number of strong, resilient tunnels connecting centrally located oats. Researchers from Japan and England reported their finding in the January 22 issue of Science [via Wired Science]. They suggest that a new model based on the simple rules of the slime mold’s behavior could help humans design more efficient, adaptable networks. Mark Fricker, a study coauthor, based at the University of Oxford, sees potential applications in designing networks that need to change over time, such as short-range wireless systems of sensors that would provide early warnings of fire or flood, which need to efficiently reroute information quickly when sensors are destroyed. Decentralized, adaptable networks would also be important for soldiers in battlefields or swarms of robots exploring hazardous environments, he suggests.

Plotting optimal routes between a number of points is a classically difficult mathematical and computing problem, the most well-known version of which is the so-called “traveling salesman” problem. Personally, I have a hard time getting my head around the mathematical concepts, but suffice to say: very hard. Attempting to solve this and similar NP-complete problems using biological computers is a growing area of interest among synthetic biologists, with faculty and students at Missouri Western and Davidson Universities taking a leading role in research. Click here for a link to an abstract from the Journal of Biological Engineering, describing how researchers devised a bacterial “computer” to solve the related Hamiltonian Path Problem.

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