Pac-Man's been gobbling ghosts for a solid 36 years now, and in that time he's had his fair share of remakes and reboots, but he's never inspired anything on the scale of a new Norwegian reimagining. That's because said scale is microscopic, with the entire game taking place in a maze less than a millimeter wide, populated by predatory microbes.
The Protozoan Pac-Man project stars single-celled Ciliate and Euglena species in the titular role, while multicellular rotifers fill the roles of the ghosts and hunt them through the familiar maze. The experiment was captured on film using micro-scenography, while the maze was illuminated with neon lighting to give the walls the familiar Pac-Man look and make them easily visible through a microscope.
While the researchers from the University College of Southeast Norway admit that the project was partly designed to raise awareness of their work and draw attention to the field, the main goal was to show how a three-dimensional environment could be created using micro and nano systems technology. However artificial this environment looks, the theory goes that it should actually result in more natural behaviour from the microbes.
Usually, scientists grow microscopic organisms in Petri dishes, studying them in flat, empty environments that don't match the conditions they'd naturally call home. It's essentially like trying to understand animals simply by observing them in cages and not the wild. Providing the microbes with obstacles, walls and canals to interact with as they would in their natural environment, such as peat and moss, may lead to new insights into how they move around their native habitats.
And it seems to be working. The researchers have noted that, although the single-celled creatures still seem to move randomly, the behaviour of the rotifers has clearly changed over time. For the first day or so after being introduced to the maze, they moved slowly and cautiously, but as they became familiar with their surroundings, they navigated the environment much more confidently.
The scientists suggest that the rotifers may leave chemical traces behind that help them learn their environment. Further studies will focus on that idea by digitally tracing the paths the organisms take around the labyrinth to examine what kind of logic they might employ to make those decisions.
You can see the "game" in action below.