Slime mold is an informal name given to several kinds of unrelated eukaryotic organisms that can live freely as single cells, but can aggregate together to form multicellular reproductive structures. Slime molds were formerly classified as fungi but are no longer considered part of that kingdom. Although not related to one another, they are still sometimes grouped for convenience within the paraphyletic group referred to as kingdom Protista.
More than 900 species of slime mold occur all over the world. Their common name refers to part of some of these organisms’ life cycles where they can appear as gelatinous “slime”. This is mostly seen with the myxogastria, which are the only macroscopic slime molds. Most slime molds are smaller than a few centimeters, but some species may reach sizes of up to several square meters and masses of up to 30 grams.
Many slime molds, mainly the “cellular” slime molds, do not spend most of their time in this state. As long as food is abundant, these slime molds exist as single-celled organisms. When food is in short supply, many of these single-celled organisms will congregate and start moving as a single body. In this state they are sensitive to airborne chemicals and can detect food sources. They can readily change the shape and function of parts and may form stalks that produce fruiting bodies, releasing countless spores, light enough to be carried on the wind or hitch a ride on passing animals.
They feed on microorganisms that live in any type of dead plant material. They contribute to the decomposition of dead vegetation, and feed on bacteria, yeasts, and fungi. For this reason, slime molds are usually found in soil, lawns, and on the forest floor, commonly on deciduous logs. However, in tropical areas they are also common on inflorescences and fruits, and in aerial situations (e.g., in the canopy of trees). In urban areas, they are found on mulch or even in the leaf mold in rain gutters, and also grow in air conditioners, especially when the drain is blocked.
Slime molds begin life as amoeba-like cells. These unicellular amoebae are commonly haploid, and feed on bacteria. These amoebae can mate if they encounter the correct mating type and form zygotes that then grow into plasmodia. These contain many nuclei without cell membranes between them, and can grow to be meters in size. The species Fuligo septica is often seen as a slimy yellow network in and on rotting logs. The amoebae and the plasmodia engulf microorganisms. The plasmodium grows into an interconnected network of protoplasmic strands.
Within each protoplasmic strand, the cytoplasmic contents rapidly stream. If one strand is carefully watched for about 50 seconds, the cytoplasm can be seen to slow, stop, and then reverse direction. The streaming protoplasm within a plasmodial strand can reach speeds of up to 1.35 mm per second, which is the fastest rate recorded for any microorganism. Migration of the plasmodium is accomplished when more protoplasm streams to advancing areas and protoplasm is withdrawn from rear areas. When the food supply wanes, the plasmodium will migrate to the surface of its substrate and transform into rigid fruiting bodies. The fruiting bodies or sporangia are what we commonly see; they superficially look like fungi or molds but are not related to the true fungi. These sporangia will then release spores which hatch into amoebae to begin the life cycle again.
A Few Common Species: