Slime Ball

Wolf’s milk slime. The real thing, not the trendy sort.

Stretching, squishing, popping, poking. . . . we are coping with the stress of the apocalypse by playing with slime.

There are billions of #slime views on TikTok and YouTube and an array of slime products for sale online: Witches Brew slime for Halloween, Spooky dense butter slime, Elmer’s Fruity Slushie slime (foam beads that stretch like a yoga teacher, not a thick smear of glue, and smell tropical), Galaxy slime that shimmers, Watermelon slime that is foldable and never dries out.

Is that the appeal? That this stuff, alone of all possible endeavors in the universe, will never let you down?

After giving instructions for playing with slime, an article on the Managed Health Network carefully adds, “This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care.”

Dr. Jack Turban, chief fellow in psychiatry at Stanford, primly tells HuffPost that he is unaware of any peer-reviewed studies about slime’s effects on mental health. I imagine him grimacing, ready to kill the PR person who allowed this interview—but then he adds that slime play and slime videos “involve bringing oneself into the present moment and focusing on the senses,” so could be considered mindfulness practice. He is taking this slime thing seriously. Others point out that slime has the soft, soothing sounds of ASMR. But for grownups, I suspect it might have more to do with the mudpies, Play-Doh, and Silly Putty of a vanished childhood.

How else to explain the eager embrace of a texture we otherwise consider icky, a word we use to describe rotten meat or scumball scam artists? When one’s reputation is slimed, the result is hardly comforting. Yet the slime sold online looks as fluffy and pastel as an ice cream treat.

The universe itself makes slime: molds that look like cotton candy, or bilious yellow dog vomit, or Physarum polycephalum, which can arrange itself in 720 sexual configurations and smells even fruitier than Elmer’s Slushie smile. In Connected, a Harvard doctor and medical sociologist describes experiments in which Physarum polycephalum was more efficient than Japanese grad students in finding the shortest route through a maze. When oat flakes (PP adores oatmeal) were placed to mimic buildings in Tokyo, the slime mold devised a route that bore a strong resemblance to Tokyo’s subway system.  When the oats represented cities surrounding Tokyo, the slime mold mapped an elegant way to grow Tokyo outward.

Slime molds live in a single cell, but every once in a while, there is a sort of rave, and thousands of them merge into a giant sluglike organism that slides around sucking nutrients from the earth. If you try to pry the individual cells apart as they are merging, they will head back to the cluster, pulled by some invisible force, driven to reunite with the larger organism. Was this the inspiration for Star Trek’s Borg? I can find no definitive origin story, but Princeton biology professor emeritus John Bonner made a time-lapse video and called it “The Life and Death of Slime Mold (aka The Borg).”

In “What Slime Knows,” Lacy Johnson describes how a spore germinates and an amoeba slithers out, then “bends and extends one edge of its cell to pull itself along,” snacking on bacteria, yeast, and algae as it goes. Moving slowly, it briefly reverses direction every minute or so, an interruption like the throb of a living heart. Even so, it can creep along at 1.35 millimeters per second, breaking all speed records for microorganisms. Every once in a while, the amoeba pauses to divide itself and clone more slime cells. If it makes its way to water, it will grow a little whiptail and propel itself, but the minute it reaches dry land, the tail will retract and vanish.

Slime mold has no brain, no sense of sight, no ability to smell—yet it can solve mazes and remember the path it took to do so. It learns patterns. It keeps time. The forms it takes are wildly varied: Tricia decipiens has a bulbous orange top resting on a narrow stalk of transparent filaments as shiny as cellophane noodles. Badhamia utricularis looks like frosted grapes carved from blue-gray granite. Willkommlangea reticulata has such loose openwork, it looks like pliable grout for a mosaic.

Slime molds are thought to be at least a billion years old, maybe two billion. They joined bacteria as the first life forms on the planet, and after each of the five extinction events (we are working on the sixth), millions of species disappeared, but single-celled slime kept on sliding. Johnson explains one of slime mold’s tricks: By exchanging all the water in the cell for sugars, slime mold goes into a sort of sugar coma, remaining inert for weeks—or centuries. It can do this whenever the environment ceases to please or suffice. And then it can return to life.

Chop slime mold up, and its bits will fuse together again in two minutes. “Or,” Johnson writes, “each piece can go off and live separate lives, learn new things, and return later to fuse together, and in the fusing, each individual can teach the other what it knows.”

With characteristics of both animals and plants, slime mold is extraordinarily adaptable and malleable. Touch it, and it changes shape under the pressure of your finger. Bonner described slime mold clusters as “no more than a bag of amoeba encased in a thin slime sheath, yet they manage to have various behaviors that are equal to those of animals who possess muscles and nerves with ganglia.”

Our forbears mistrusted slime. Back in the ninth century, a Chinese scholar named one specimen “demon droppings.” European folklore presents slime mold as witches’ work. Today, we seem to be redeeming the stuff.

We covet its ability to adapt, shapeshift, and survive.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.