Transportation System Sustainability and Adaptation Using Physarum Polycephalum

Connecticut faces numerous transportation challenges in the coming decades. Sustainability and livability principles have required reconsideration of many previous methods of planning, designing and construction of the transportation system. At the heart of these principles is the idea that transportation systems should encourage the sort of development and activity that creates vibrant communities while maintaining economic competitiveness. This requires that projects be evaluated as long-term investments that will influence the evolution of cities, states and the nation. Projects are (quite reasonably) selected and designed using the anthropogenic planning process that has guided transportation system design for decades. Recently, researchers in Japan and the U.K. have discovered that a particular species of mold, Physarum polycephalum, or "Slime Mold" has the unique ability to replicate transportation networks. P. polycephalum networks merit study because millions of years of evolution have led to an adaptive behavior in which cost, efficiency and resilience are optimized in the feeding networks it constructs. The research objective of this proposal is to investigate, quantify and model the network adaptation of P. polycephalum and apply the information to an analysis of the Connecticut interstate highway and rail network. The proposed research has the potential to provide an interesting and unique alternate method of evaluating CT transportation decisions that is not beholden to the existing anthropogenic process. The PI in no way intends that slime mold take over planning activities from transportation professionals - the intent of this work is to leverage hundreds of millions of years of evolution in identifying routes in the CT transportation system that are critical for network robustness and sustainability. This work will also result in methodological contributions in network evolution modeling. This work also presents an extraordinary opportunity to communicate the ideas and principles of complex systems - specifically complex transportation systems, to a much broader audience in a very comprehensible fashion. The PI proposes to reach out to a middle school science class during the course of this project with an experimental design that the science teacher enthusiastically endorses. Further, the PI will develop and maintain a website that disseminates the results of this work and provides materials to educators across the country to perform the outreach experiment designed for the middle school outreach activity.