marisa morby

Design & Nature Reimagined: The universe beneath our feet (Part 2)

Last time we talked about all the amazing things that fungi do in the background that we see every day, but aren't always aware of. From mycelial networks that feed the forest to composting all of the waste that falls to the ground, fungi is necessary and it's everywhere. But this time I promised I would talk to you about puzzles, problem solving, and what that has to do with fungus.

How fungus works

Fungus has evolved to maintain a huge system. It's in the roots of the majority of plants and trees, weaving its way around and through the root system like a huge network, carrying nutrients along the network and dispersing it among the plants. To maintain this system, that means fungus has to be a master problem solver. It must work individually and as a whole to assess the overall status of the network and make new decisions as changes arise. We don't really have the right language to talk about how fungus operates because it is simultaneously an individual and one of many. The whole goal of fungus is to be a network to understand the status of all the plants, and also administer nutrients to them.

So if the goal of fungus is to assess status and distribute resources, how do we know it's a problem solver? Well, because scientists have tested it.

Fungus and transit planning

Scientists created tiny replicas of major cities like London and Tokyo. The railway or subway stations are represented by pieces of oatmeal. As the slime mold "travels" through the replica, it naturally finds the most efficient route. It will explore areas between pieces of oatmeal, doing quick trials to see what route is more efficient. It seems to remember what routes it's tried in the past that didn't work, and then continues reinforcing the most efficient route. In doing this, the mold basically mapped out the Tokyo subway system.... in just over 24 hours. Think about this for a minute. It takes a slime mold a little more than a day to settle on a the most efficient route within the replica. This form is basically the pattern that maps out current transit systems. This means that slime mold could help us with improved transit planning faster than current models. As climate change intensifies natural disasters around the world, having slime molds that can quickly, easily, and cheaply map out efficient routes gives us the opportunity for decentralized, adaptable networks that work even in times of disaster. If roads are gone due to flooding, you just remove those pieces of oatmeal from the replica and see what better options are available. When I think about a reimagined future where humans are learning from nature and more connected to it, this is what I picture. Using something that already exists in a beautifully simple way that helps us appreciate nature for what it is, while also helping us live better lives.

An image of a slime mold taken over the course of 26 hours. The slime mold has created a network across the replica city it was placed on.

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This is a replica of railway stations in Tokyo. In 26 hours, the slime mold found the most efficient route to all of the stations.