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A Scientist And a Slime Mold Are Set To Play a Duet

The blob-like creatures’ movements inspired a composer to create a way for slime mold to play the piano

Physarum polycephalum in the wild, sans piano (George Loun/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)
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Slime molds are delightfully odd creatures. Though they look like the fungi that spreads over old bread and fallen logs, they aren’t molds at all. They’re amoebae, and their oozing, often colorful, bodies are really just a huge single cell containing millions of nuclei, the command center of cells that houses DNA. They belong to an altogether different kingdom than fungi—the protists, which, as University of Sydney researcher Chris Reid told Scientific American, is really just a catch all taxonomic category for "everything we don’t really understand." 

While researchers have studied slime mold’s ability to find the fastest, most efficient route—a trait useful for finding food—they seem like unlikely creatures with which to create a musical collaboration. But that’s not stopping Eduardo Miranda, a professor of computer music and composer.

Miranda’s new composition, Biocomputer Music, features a piano, electromagnets and the slime mold, Physarum polycephalum, reports the pseudonymous GrrlScientist, a science writer and evolutionary biologist. The cheery-yellow colored slime mold lives in dark moist areas, like woodlands. But it’s also easy to grow in the lab and, since it can move in response to its environment, actually makes a great duet partner. GrrlScientist writes:

To capture the slime mould’s response to sound, Professor Miranda and his team designed a musical bio-computer that translates electrical energy generated by movement into sound (arXiv:1212.1203). When the piano keys are played, the cultured slime mould responds by changing its shape, and this movement creates electrical energy. By capturing the electrical energy and transforming it into sound, this new technology allows the slime mould to provide an auditory response to Miranda’s original musical phrase.

The signals sent by the slime mold trigger electromagnets to vibrate the piano strings. So while both Miranda and the molds play the piano, the sounds they pull from the instrument are different. 

The performance will take place on March 1 at Plymouth University in the U.K. as part of the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival. All are welcome. But for distant but intrigued readers, the music can be previewed in this video, which also provides details on the slime-mold/piano/computer set up itself.  

"We are witnessing a shift of paradigm in computer science," Miranda says in the video. "Where scientists are looking to build new kinds of computers: biocomputers...machines that combine silicon processors with processors made with microbiological organisms." As a composer, he is interested in using those biocomputers to create music—but that's hardly the only potential use for which humans could harness tiny organisms' power.

The music in the video is a little eerie and also meditative. Miranda listens to the slime mold’s responses as he plays. "It gives me a completely different feeling. It is a completely different way of interacting with a system," he says.

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