‘Slime Mold’ Helps Astronomers Map the Universe’s Dark Matter

A brainless, one-celled organism with a knack for getting foodstuff is supporting astronomers review the premier, most mysterious construction in the universe — the cosmic website. But, very first, issues could get a little bit slimy. 

The cosmic website is a broad community of interconnected filaments created of dark issue and fuel that forms the scaffolding the overall universe is designed upon. These filaments can stretch hundreds of tens of millions of light-weight-several years, and they hook up galaxies, galaxy clusters and even galaxy superclusters. Nonetheless, because the cosmic website is exceptionally faint — and the dark issue inside it does not interact with light-weight — it’s incredibly challenging to map.  

To deal with this problem, researchers at the College of California, Santa Cruz, sifted through archived data for a lot more than 37,000 galaxies ahead of charting their positions in the sky. They then utilised a subtle algorithm to map out the invisible filaments of fuel and dark issue involving those people galaxies to decide how they are interacting with just about every other, as effectively as how the cosmic website influences star development in these galaxies. 

But this wasn’t your regular algorithm. In its place, the researchers utilised a model inspired by slime mildew — exclusively, the species Physarum polycephalum.

This algorithm mimics the mold’s foodstuff-trying to get actions, which sends out tendrils of reconnaissance mildew to hunt for close by foodstuff. If a distinct mildew thread stumbles on foodstuff, it thrives, producing a robust link involving the foodstuff and the relaxation of the colony.

So by substituting person galaxies for the mildew-based algorithm’s “food,” researchers ended up equipped to make a 3D map that indicates how the galaxy-connecting filaments of the cosmic website are intertwined.

Incidentally, the fuel involving galaxies also acts as a variety of “cosmic food” that fuels star development. And when you know how cosmic website filaments are linked to a galaxy, you can hazard a guess at the charge at which the galaxy is — or isn’t — forming stars. This sort of a prediction is based on irrespective of whether or not a galaxy is linked to the cosmic website, as effectively as how tightly bound it is to other galaxies. If it’s linked also strongly, it operates the threat of drying up opportunities for star development also loosely, and it cannot get to ample fuel. 


Scientists seeded an algorithm inspired by the foodstuff-trying to get actions of slime mildew with the positions of about 37,000 galaxies, the place the galaxies served as the “food.” This served them model and create a 3D map of the cosmic website connecting these galaxies. Earlier mentioned, the galaxies (or foodstuff) are demonstrated in yellow, while the cosmic website is demonstrated in purple. (Credit score: NASA/ESA/J. Burchett and O. Elek/UC Santa Cruz)

From Slime to House

The strategy to use a slime-based algorithm to map the cosmic website arrived from co-author Oskar Elek, a UC Santa Cruz computational media post-doc. He had earlier observed the function of slime mildew algorithms, so he urged Joe Burchett — an astronomer at UC Santa Cruz and lead author of the new paper — to utilize it to his function on the cosmic website, whose construction remains elusive.

“He essentially sent me monitor photographs of the data fitted with this ultimate algorithm,” Burchett claims. “What I observed was a trace of the reconstruction of the cosmic website that appealed a lot, a lot, a lot a lot more to my intuitive perception of what the cosmic website must search like [in contrast with earlier designs].”

This isn’t the very first time experts have utilised slime molds to map various constructions. Slime molds are pro filament builders, constructing complex underground networks that assist them lookup for foodstuff and assets. These one-celled organisms function as just one massive colony that can be up to 1 foot in diameter. And, oddly, their filamentary constructions display a propensity for what could be explained as difficulty-resolving.

Slime molds are adept at “shortest path” troubles, this kind of as getting the very best way to weave through a maze to locate foodstuff hidden inside. It is been identified as “slime mildew computing” ahead of, and even likened to a rudimentary intelligence — although this naturally arrives with its very own subset of thorny inquiries. 

“For a slime mildew, the planet is a combination of two fields: gradients of attractants [stuff it wants] and gradients of repellents [stuff it avoids],” Andrew Adamatzky, a professor in unconventional computing at the College of West England, wrote in an e mail. “The slime mildew basically follows the gradients. This is how it calculates, for illustration, the shortest path.”

By tracking how the slime mildew algorithm linked individual galaxies, researchers knew the place to search for cosmic website filaments in archived observations. “Wherever we observed a filament in our model,” Burchett mentioned in a statement, “the Hubble spectra confirmed a fuel sign, and the sign bought more powerful toward the middle of filaments the place the fuel must be denser.” This usually means the researchers not only utilised the algorithm to successfully pinpoint the place threads of the cosmic website must be, but also essentially uncover them.

“For the very first time now, we can quantify the density of the intergalactic medium from the distant outskirts of cosmic website filaments to the warm, dense interiors of galaxy clusters,” Burchett mentioned. “These outcomes not only verify the construction of the cosmic website predicted by cosmological designs, they also give us a way to boost our understanding of galaxy evolution by connecting it with the fuel reservoirs out of which galaxies sort.”

The new exploration was released March 10 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.