Amoeba Defeats Challenging 'Traveling Salesman Problem'

Scientists in Japan have determined that amoeba can indeed defeat the 'traveling salesman problem.'
Joseph Wolkin
The photo credit line may appear like thisRobby Green/Flickr

It's hard enough for human beings to calculate math problems. And now, humans have a new challenger when it comes to mathematics.

Researchers from Tokyo's Keio University have discovered that single-celled organisms called amoeba can actually solve computational math problems. The amoeba can literally solve complicated problems, such as the famous "traveling salesman problem."

The researchers' work, published in Royal Society Open Science, exemplifies how they used an organism called Physarum polycephalum "by changing its shape to minimize the risk of being exposed to aversive light stimuli."

What Is Amoeba?

The different types of amoeba are essentially like nature's version of a computer. They are used for biological computation thanks to its rare problem-solving capabilities.

The amoeba, in this case, the Physarum polycephalum, can extend its body. By doing so, it has an efficient food source and rejects light.

The organism has no definite shape. It moves by means of pseudopodia, which are "false feet."

How Did Amoeba Solve a Math Problem?

The question the amoeba solved is relatively challenging. 

It essentially aims to calculate the quickest route for the "traveling salesman" given a listen of different locations. The goal is to not only do visit each of the given destinations, but to make it back home. 

Astonishingly enough, the amoeba managed to solve the problem.

The Japanese researchers placed the organism on a plate, which contained 64 different channels, acting as 64 cities. The amoeba then can extend its body into each location, just like one would do with a chart to solve the problem.

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It wasn't that simple, though. 

The research team put a nutrient-rich medium on the plate, enticing the amoeba to soak it all up. Since the amoeba hates light, it retracted from any channel that was illuminated, making it the perfect combination to see if it could solve the problem.

It did.

In an interview with Phys.org, the researchers said the goal is to create a series of chips that will have thousands of channels, allowing the amoeba to solve even more complicated versions of the traveling salesman problem.

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