Slime mould is the informal name given to the micro-organism Physarum polycephalum. Famous for its ability to navigate the simplest path through a maze and growing on the surface of agar plates at a rate of several millimetres per hour, it is sustained on a diet of oats.
I first came across this when I attended Science on Stage in Debrecen, Hungary this summer as a UK delegate. While there I had the chance to attend a number of workshops and talks to explore project ideas run by teachers from around Europe.
One of the workshops was ‘Is slime mould smarter than you?’ by UK teacher David Teasdale and Dutch teacher Hans Mulder. They explained what slime mould was, how you look after it, grow it, and some of the experiments that you can undertake with it. It was all very hands-on and great for those in the room without a biology background.
Since I have returned from Science on Stage, I have been investigating its possible uses in my classroom. Starting from a dried sample placed on an agar plate with some oats, the slime mould rapidly moved outwards searching for food (top image).
Once reanimated from its dry storage from, we were keen to look more closely at such a fast growing organism. Placing it under the microscope and using time-lapse photography, students can see the dynamic structures which underlie its movement towards food.
Students also designed investigations to identify slime moulds’ favourite food source (oats) and surface to move across (wooden splints). The variety in the students investigation designs and ability to compare results gave them much to talk about and learn. Slime mould grows so quickly that it was feasible to test in only two lessons.
Slime mould can be stored indefinitely by growing it on filter paper and then drying the filter paper. This can then be kept in the prep room fridge until it is needed again (following all the relevant health and safety protocols for storage and use of course). An initial sample can be bought from many of the scientific suppliers which supply schools.
Slime mould is an engaging model organism with huge potential for use in science lessons and STEM clubs.
We have so far used it to investigate cellular structure, behaviour and experimental design. This however barely touches on its potential!