slime mold or slime fungus, a heterotrophic organism once regarded as a fungus but later classified with the Protista. In a recent system of classification based on analysis of nucleic acid (genetic material) sequences, slime molds have been classified in a major group called the eukarya (or eukaryotes), which includes plants and animals. There are two groups of slime molds, the plasmodial slime molds of the phylum (division) Myxomycota and the cellular slime molds of Acrasiomycota.
Slime molds have complex life cycles that may be divided into an animallike motile phase, in which growth and feeding occur, and a plantlike, immotile, reproductive phase. The motile phase is commonly found under rotting logs and damp leaves, where cellulose is abundant. It consists in the cellular slime molds of solitary, amebalike cells, and in the Myxomycota of a coenocytic (multinucleate) mass of protoplasm called a plasmodium, which creeps about by ameboid movement. Plasmodia often grow to a diameter of several inches and are frequently brightly colored. Both types ingest solid food particles using a process called phagocytosis (see endocytosis). They feed on living microorganisms, such as bacteria and yeasts, as well as decaying vegetation. Before entering the reproductive stage, a plasmodium moves to a drier, better-lit place, such as the top of a log. In the amebalike, or cellular, slime molds, up to 125,000 individual cells aggregate and flow together, forming a multicellular mass called a pseudoplasmodium that resembles a slug and crawls about before settling in a location with acceptable warmth and brightness.
In the reproductive stage the plasmodium or pseudoplasmodium is transformed into one or more reproductive structures called fruiting bodies, each consisting of a stalk topped by a spore-producing capsule that resembles the reproductive structures of many fungi. Eventually the cellulose-walled spores are released and dispersed; they germinate in wet places, releasing naked cells. In a typical plasmodial slime mold the germinated spores go through an ameboid or flagellated swimming stage, followed by sexual fusions and cell divisions. The diploid ameboid cell (i.e., the zygote) grows and its nucleus divides repeatedly, resulting in the formation of a new plasmodium. Under adverse conditions a plasmodium may be transformed into a hard, dry, inactive mass called a sclerotium. Resistant to desiccation, it becomes a plasmodium again when favorable conditions return.
In the case of the cellular slime molds, each spore released becomes a single ameba, which feeds individually until starving cells release a chemical signal that causes them to aggregate into a new pseudoplasmodium, and the process is repeated. In sexual reproduction two haploid amebas fuse, then engulf surrounding amebas, forming a single organism called a macrocyst. The macrocyst then undergoes meiosis and mitosis and releases haploid individuals.
There are about 65 cellular and 500 known plasmodial slime mold species, found in forests and sometimes lawns throughout the world. In a few species the plasmodium, under favorable conditions, may cover an area of several square feet. A slime mold is the cause of clubroot, a disease of cabbage and related plants.
See J. T. Bonner, The Cellular Slime Molds (2d ed. 1985).
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