To see the world in a uninucleate amoeboflagellate cell, and heaven in a plasmodium

Go to the slime mold, thou sluggard.

Canst thou draw out the slime mold with a hook?

Consider the slime molds of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

These are just a few examples of the many poetic and proverbial uses of slime mold imagery that you won’t find in the Bible – or any other classic sacred or literary text that I’m aware of.

That’s a shame, because these organisms challenge some of our most fundamental preconceptions about how life should work. And needless to say, faulty assumptions and unconscious prejudices constitute the most serious impediments to understanding – in religion no less than in science.

In theological circles, the experience of wonder – also known as the “holy shit!” moment – is recognized as a key step in the spiritual progress of every individual. Thus, by helping to advance general knowledge and promote deeper spiritual awareness through the circulation of fascinating scientific facts about slime molds, I may become eligible for the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities, currently valued at 795,000 pounds sterling. That’s more than $1.4 million in real money. So please be sure to link widely to this post. I need the dough.

I’m indebted to the Illustrated Guide to the Slime Molds, by Peter Katsaros, for much of the following information (though all the language and some of the spin is my own). Let’s call this . . .

SLIME MOLDS: Nature’s way of telling us we’re wrong

Slime molds are everywhere – at least in the Temperate Zone where most of you reading this probably live. They’re not microscopic (though a microscope is often necessary to tell one kind from another); some can get bigger than breadboxes. You, like me, have doubtless seen slime molds hundreds, if not thousands, of times, but either didn’t notice, or simply didn’t realize what you were looking at.

Don’t you feel chastened? I expect your mind is fairly reeling with the moral implications of this stark truth – not to mention all the obvious possibilities for metaphor and homily.

Breaking the mold

You want transformation, metamorphosis? Boy, do these suckers ever metamorphose. Forget about caterpillar into luna moth, soul into spirit, Big Mac into little Jimmy. Every species of slime mold progresses from an assimilative phase to a propagative phase: that is to say, they go from moving around and eating stuff to standing still and growing little stalks. From animal-like to plant-like – often in just a few hours if the conditions are right.

To me, this makes slime molds into potent spiritual symbols. Most sources I’ve looked at, however, employ the shopworn “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” analogy, which doesn’t even get the order right, for cryin’ out loud.

So what the hell are they? Good question.

One thing for certain is they’re not true molds. Molds are classed with fungi. The current scientific consensus (pace the introduction to the Illustrated Guide) seems to be that slime molds should be assigned their own kingdom, separate from Fungi (not to mention Plants, Animals, Protists, Monera, Archaea, Big Macs, etc.).

But that, of course, doesn’t really tell us anything. Classification systems are only really helpful if they can give us some inkling about interrelatedness, and at this point, where slime molds are concerned, inklings are in short supply. Here,if you’re curious, is the most recent attempt to make sense of slime mold phylogeny.

So you might say that slime molds break the mold. The classification of known species reveals what Professor Katsaros calls “a startling imbalance, to say the least” – which is about as much hyperbole as you’ll ever get from a trained scientist. “The common Ceratiomyxa fructilosa (and its forms) produces external spores, whereas all other slime molds discovered to date generate spores internally.”

Well, perhaps further research will uncover a few more species to join C.f., the lone extrovert. But then again, maybe it won’t.

There are slime molds in deserts, slime molds in forests, slime molds in the innermost courtyard of the Japanese imperial place. (That’s not just whimsy on my part. The former emperor was a self-taught slime mold expert who made a number of valuable contributions to the field. Unfortunately, future emperors will probably while away their considerable free time writing in their blogs. But you never know.)

Most slime molds don’t have common names, but one that does is Fuligo septica: dog vomit slime mold.

What’s weird is that “for reasons that are not yet known, slime molds are less abundant in tropical forests than in temperate forests.” Even weirder: unlike other organisms that speciate wildly from one bioregion to another, most slime mold species tend to have worldwide distribution. You’d think that would mean there’d be plenty of room for them to, you know, spread out, but no. Multiple species often crowd together during the propagative stage, with their fruiting bodies all jumbled together like college kids at a dorm room kegger. Distinct groups of species prefer different niches, but for some reason they don’t appear to be aggressively competing for those niches. How the heck is natural selection (let alone free market capitalism) supposed to function under such circumstances?

We don’t know what it is, sir. Permission to fire.

That is, assuming slime molds did evolve here, and didn’t just float in from outer space.

Yes, that’s right! Possibly the coolest single thing about slime molds is that, on the rare occasions when human beings do notice them, they are apt to trigger widespread panic and fears of an alien invasion.

The most famous such incident occurred in a Dallas, Texas suburb back in 1973. This may come as a shock to those of you accustomed to thinking of Texas as a bastion of skepticism, scientific inquiry and a welcoming, “live and let live” cosmopolitan spirit. But faced with an apparent invasion of huge, pulsating yellow blobs crawling all over their manicured lawns and even up onto their front porches, the panicky suburbanites called on the fire department to try and get rid of the things by blasting the bejeezus out them with a fire hose. (Well, I suspect that someone must’ve tried shooting them first, but surviving news reports don’t confirm this.) Then, when that futile act of resistance merely spread the invasion over a wider area, they prevailed upon the governor to call out the National Guard.

As Dave Berry would say, I swear I’m not making this up.

Fortunately, a mycologist specializing in slime molds happened to see a headline about the UGO (Unidentified Growing Object) invasion, and was able to get on TV and calm the public nerves. And that’s a good thing, because in the tense, Cold War atmosphere of the time, an escalating situation like this – especially in Texas – might easily have triggered Russian fears of a first strike, leading to an exchange of intercontinental ballistic missiles, thermonuclear Armageddon and the extinction of most multicellular life forms on earth – with the possible exception, one suspects, of the infinitely malleable and adaptable slime molds.

Plastics, son. Plastics.

Now, at some point in your education, you probably encountered the notion that Cells Are the Building Blocks of Life. This turns out to be an exceedingly poor analogy. In most organisms – including human beings – cells are far less static and less clearly differentiated in their functions than a child’s building blocks. (Ever hear of stem cells?)

But in this regard, once again, slime molds really push the envelope. Come to think of it, “pushing the envelope” isn’t a bad image for the behavior of their mobile, or plasmodium, form in general. The point is that, as our guidebook puts it,

A burgeoning plasmodium is one of the most puzzling structures known to biology. Beneath a thin outer layer it contains many nuclei but no cell walls whatsoever. Consequently, the plasmodium has been viewed as both a multicellular structure without cell walls, and a unicelled but unwalled structure possessing many nuclei.

True to (un-)form, infant slime molds – called protoplasmic motes – can form flagella seemingly at will, given sufficient moisture in the environment. Flagella, as you probably know, means “whips” – those little tails that some unicellular organisms use to move about. Of course, sperm cells have whips, too, which implies to me that sex is inherently kinky.

And speaking of sex, after a short while the plasmodium begins doing what many life forms do when they want to get bigger: it starts having sex. With itself. “The motes behave as sex cells and form paired unions (zygotes). The zygotes grow by undergoing a modified form of cell multiplication, by accretion of other zygotes, and by ingestion of bacteria and other microscopic nutrients.”

In other words, sex and eating are all sort of mixed up in one amorphous quest for survival – kind of like in an old blues song. And keep in mind that this is wholly separate from the later, plant-like reproduction by the release of so-called spores. What isn’t clear to me is whether true sex – some version of cross-pollination, the mingling of heterogeneous DNA – actually takes place. I suspect that this isn’t clear to the experts, either, which is why my sources blip over the subject.

At any rate: behold the mature plasmodium, chugging right along at about the speed of drugged slug. “Its jellied mass, frequently a bright yellow, features a conspicuous fan-shaped leading edge averaging several inches in extent, and diminishes rearward into trailing strands criss-crossed into an intricate network.”

But it’s doing more than just moving forward. It’s also doing a slow dance with itself. With the aid of a microscope, slime mold experts say, you can observe that underneath its very thin skin (“fragile integument”), the stuff inside the plasmodial mass flows back and forth “in a very slow cadence,” as Professor Katsaros puts it. Molecules are contracting in sync – something that happens every time you flex a muscle – apparently just for the sheer hell of it.

As alluded to earlier in the account of the Great Texan Unidentified Growing Object Incident, slime molds make hash of the mental categories One vs. Many. (In that respect – as, perhaps, in a few others – they remind me of God(s). But never mind.) A plasmodium quite commonly separates into multiple, discrete units and re-forms as it moves aimlessly about. So internal plasticity of function is mirrored by external plasticity of form.

According to a recent article from Smithsonian magazine available online, slime molds even “show a quality that could be called intelligence: chopped up and dropped into a labyrinth, they will put themselves back together and start to move, avoiding dead ends and heading unerringly for the prize–more food.”

At this point, those Texans start to seem a little less ignorant, don’t they? By all that is holy – a pretty large yardstick, really – slime molds just shouldn’t exist.

What else would you feed a pet slime mold than a mess o’ oatmeal?

But exist they do, and with a great deal of style – at least in their latter incarnation as plant-like sporophores. A stunningly illustrated article from my mother’s files, evidently ripped out of an older issue of Smithsonian (unfortunately undated), rightly calls these structures “spectacularly beautiful.”

They are prizes worth searching for, no matter how silly you might feel inspecting a rotten log, scrutinizing fallen leaves or carefully examining all the dead twigs around the melting edges of a mountain snowbank. . . . Your reward may be a three-inch cluster of iridescent purple balls, each smaller than the head of a pin, or a patch of diminutive red cotton candy on tiny stalks. Other fruiting bodies resemble miniature leather buttons or golf balls for Lilliputians. (Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, “Beauties from a beast: woodland Jekyll and Hydes”)

Some good color photos may be found online, such as at this page from the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Keep in mind, however, that slime molds are as plastic in their approach to coloration as in anything else. As the Illustrated Guide puts it,

Spore color in the slime molds ranges from colorless (technically: hyaline) to black. This feature has its value, but spore color is much the same in some widely separated genera, so it is usually of secondary importance in identification. Sporophore color is a much more useful feature, most often at maturity. For example, the frothy mass of white bubbles constituting an emerging Stemonitis plasmodium produces dark brown sporangia [globe-shaped structures]. What happens in between these light and dark extremes? The developing sporophores exhibit a series of short-lived tints on their way to mature coloration. These fleeting colors are attractive but not used in identification because of the many gradations involved. Many species show these fleeting colors.

So, if you notice some weird-looking stuff out in the woods and you want to try to identify it, you have two options.

A) Camp out beside it until it becomes immobile, sends up little stalks, grows balls, or what have you. Wait until it stops going through color changes. Then crack out Katsaros and hope for the best. “Many plasmodia remain completely unknown,” he warns. But he adds this helpful note: “The study of slime molds at the amateur level affords many opportunities for exploring new ground.”

B) If you’re serious, you’ll need to raise them and keep them as pets. The older Smithsonian article describes one enthusiastic amateur of decades past, Ruth Nauss, who maintained a slime mold menagerie for years.

She fed them ground oatmeal flakes, their usual diet in laboratories. When she went on vacation, she took the most delicate along with her, tucking them in with a ‘warm water bottle’ on cold nights. She withheld moisture from the hardier ones for several weeks before a vacation to induce them to harden into sclerotia, so she could leave them unattended. At the time she wrote about them, her oldest plasmodium had been crawling around in its dish for more than nine years.

And what is time, one wonders, to a creature of such amorphous identity? What kind of consciousness might attend a being for which forms and functions, shapes and colors, habits and habitats are so fluid? (I’m assuming for all living things at least minimal awareness, defined as the ability to resist entropy and respond to stimuli in a non-random way. I think the scientific evidence is pretty strong that consciousness exists along a continuum.) What is time or even life to a creature that, in its “spore” form, might exist for centuries?

Holy in the wrong

In comparing older sources, such as Katsaros, with some of the newer descriptions available online, I get the distinct impression that the focus has shifted from sporophore to spores. These “spores” are now viewed less as seeds whose purpose is to reproduce slow-motion blobs, as “uninucleate amoeboflagellate cells”: the original and archetypal form. According to this paradigm, slime molds only go through the whole plasmodia-and-sporophore rigmarole when they need to obey a divine injunction to be fruitful and multiply, or whatever.

But then, if you could ask sperm and egg cells how they feel about turning into human beings, they might be equally dismissive of that latter, derivative stage of their existence.

The Heavy Thought I seem to be groping toward here is something along the lines of “seed consciousness,” possibly to be understood by analogy with the Kabbalistic image of divine sparks scattered throughout the world as a by-product of original Creation. But I have the feeling we’ve already covered too much ground and played with too many weak analogies, not to mention bad jokes, for one blog post. My plasmodial crawl toward the rich foodstuff of the Templeton Prize will just have to wait.

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