Unicellular organisms live in unpredictable environments. Therefore, they need to continuously assess environmental conditions and respond appropriately to survive and thrive. When subjected to rapid changes in their environment or to cellular damages, unicellular organisms such as bacteria exhibit strong physiological reactions called stress responses that can be sensed by conspecifics. The ability to detect and use stress-related cues released by conspecifics to acquire information about the environment constitutes an adaptive survival response by prompting the organism to avoid potential dangers. Here, we investigate stress signalling and its detection by conspecifics in a unicellular organism, Physarum polycephalum . Slime moulds were subjected to either biotic (i.e. nutritional) or abiotic (i.e. chemical and light) stressors or left undisturbed while they were exploring a homogeneous environment. Then, we observed the responses of slime moulds facing a choice between cues released by stressed clone mates and cues released by undisturbed ones. We found that slime moulds actively avoided environments previously explored by stressed clone mates. These results suggest that slime moulds, like bacteria or social amoeba, exhibit physiological responses to biotic and abiotic stresses that can be sensed by conspecifics. Our results establish slime moulds as a promising new model to investigate the use of social information in unicellular organisms.
This article is part of the theme issue ‘Signal detection theory in recognition systems: from evolving models to experimental tests’.