It is common sense to think that without our brains and nervous tissues, we wouldn’t be able to think or for that matter learn. The brain and nervous tissues are crucial parts of the learning process, but can some organisms learn without them? Recently, scientists have demonstrated that a single celled protist is able to learn and adapt through a process called habituation. Habituation is essentially just learning to adapt to a stimulus after repeated exposure, but without nervous tissue and a brain, it is pretty profound.
In the past, there have been bacteria and viruses that have changed their behavior but it has taken time and generations to pass. Bacteria usually just change based on evolutionary factors and not actually learning like the scientists have demonstrated here. The protist however learned in a short period of time based off of stimuli to pass through a maze and avoid traps, which is impressive for a brainless cell. They also learned after numerous trials that to get food they had to pass through a bitter substance. They eventually learned that although bitter, it was harmless, and they needed the food in order to survive.
The results showed that the single celled molds were able to learn from their trials, and remember and apply their knowledge later to similar situations. This form of habituation has never been seen in a non-neural organism because it has always been assumed that this type of learning needs a brain and nervous tissue. This opens the door in to a world of more unknowns because we now have no idea what organisms are able to learn and which aren’t, we can no longer just assume they can’t because they don’t have a brain.
For most humans, we take the ability to learn for granted. We are born with a brain, neurons, nervous tissues, all that jazz, but we don’t stop to think how hard it may be for other organisms who don’t have all of that. Other mammals have similar structures to us, but how about fish, algae, or even a bacteria like E. Coli? There is research that shows how these organisms operate, but with this breakthrough, they could be capable of so much more we don’t know about or haven’t seen yet.
Now that we have an idea of what smaller organisms like molds and protists can do, we should shift the focus to bacteria. Some of the bacteria inside of our bodies is helpful, and other forms of bacteria can do some serious damage, but what if we taught the good guys how to help us even more and more efficiently? Scientists should use this knowledge to train bacteria like escheria coli, which aids in digestion, how to better process our food and get the most nutrients out of it. Although this may be impossible or very challenging, I just think we should push the bacteria and single celled organisms to their limits and see what they can do in order to help us.