The University of Southampton

Slime-mould robot glides through a world of change and decay

Published: 
5 December 2011
Illustration

A working robot controlled by a slime mould, and designed and built in ECS-Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, will play a starring role in a major BBC4/Discovery Channel series to be aired from tomorrow (Tuesday 6 December).

Afterlife - The Strange Science of Decay, uses time-lapse cameras and specialist photography to capture the extraordinary way in which moulds, microbes and insects are able to break down our everyday things and allow new life to emerge from old.

Decay is something that many of us are repulsed by. But as the programme shows, it's a process that's vital in nature. And seen in close up, it has an unexpected and sometimes mesmerising beauty.

One aspect of the series shows the sometimes surprising ability of moulds to react to external stimuli. Earlier this year the production team spent a whole day in ECS, filming with Dr Klaus-Peter Zauner and Dr Soichiro Tsuda, who developed the slime-mould robot. Its central innovation is that its movements are controlled by a biochip which encapsulates a plasmodial cell of the slime mould Physarum polycephalum. An electronic interface enables the slime-mould cell to be connected to a computer in order to monitor local mechanical oscillations in the cell and it also provides stimulation for the slime-mould through light signals, causing the movement of the robot.

Dr Tsuda told the programme presenter, Dr George McGavin, that his inspiration for the robot had come from Dr Who’s Daleks! ‘It’s amazing that something that lives on dead trees can be used to control a machine,’ said Dr McGavin.

Physarum polycephalum has been used by Dr Zauner in research projects which have included both research students and undergraduates in ECS over a number of years: Gareth Jones, now a PhD student in ECS, developed the drive system of the robot in his Part III project and ECS Electronics graduate Paul Macey developed the interface to the slime-mould cell in his Part III project.

Klaus-Peter commented “There was a time when people in hot-air balloons looked at pigeons and realised that there is a radically different solution to the problem of flight. Now we marvel at nature's molecular computers which tell us that there are radically different solutions to the problem of information processing.

‘To harvest the potential of molecular computing, however, we need a generation of engineers with a broad concept of computation - I am therefore particularly pleased that the most important component of this robot was developed by an undergraduate, Paul Macey.”

Physarum is a popular model-organism in unconventional computing. It processes information from its environment in a distributed fashion that is not yet well understood.

‘Afterlife’ will be shown on 6, 7, and 9 December. It will examine many different aspects of decomposition and decay, including the complexity of organisms that are associated with decomposition, as well as exploring our attitudes to bacteria and the breakdown of bio-systems.

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For more information on this news story contact Joyce Lewis; tel. +44(0)23 8059 5453

If you are interested in PhD research in this area, you can find out more information on our Postgraduate Admissions pages.

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