PASADENA, Calif.—Merriam Webster defines “alchemy” as, “a power or process of transforming something common into something special.”
Well medieval chemical science move over, because this amalgamation certainly counts as something special.
Part biological, part inanimate polymer, this “medusoid”,
or artificial jellyfish, developed by Caltech and Harvard researchers is a prime
example of how science can conceptualize reverse engineering life forms.
Synthesis could become the new method for a host of fields, notably medical;
however, the scope of the discovery offers unlimited choices given the proper
The choice for the biological bits followed a rather practical thought process. As a jellyfish propels itself through the ocean, it’s, in effect, “pumping” water and thus moves in spurts. Researches saw fit therefore to employ the pumping organ of a rat, or rather, some tissue that contracted when introduced to an electrical current, much the way defibrillation hopes to jump start a stilled heart.
The curiosity of co-author Kevin Kit Parker in creating a heterogeneous bioengineered mimic to the jellyfish most likely stemmed from Parker’s established works with the Wyss Institute, where as a faculty member he has successfully created inanimate constructs capable of gripping, pumping and walking.
Parker’s vested interest in pump mechanics led him to search for a pre-cursor, pumping in a basic form. “I started looking at marine organisms that pump to survive,” he said, “then I saw a jellyfish at the New England Aquarium and I immediately noted both similarities and differences between how the jellyfish and the human heart pump.”
the two have in spades; short of the science-birthed organism’s measured
contractions, there isn’t much for the layperson to link the two. A silicone membrane surrounds the tissue
while eight tentacles offer the propulsion.
Side-by-side, the aeronautics of an organic jellyfish and the medusoid
are strikingly similar.
Janna Nawroth, a biology doctorate student of Caltech and lead author worked with Parker as well as her advisor, John Dabiri, aeronautics and bioengineering professor.
Nawroth explained how the group’s bizarre choice in materials may have contributed to their success in creating what is essentially a muscular pump.
“A big goal of our study was to advance tissue engineering," says Nawroth. “In many ways, it is still a very qualitative art, with people trying to copy a tissue or organ just based on what they think is important or what they see as the major components—without necessarily understanding if those components are relevant to the desired function or without analyzing first how different materials could be used.”
Dabiri was surprised by the ingenuity yet simply artful solution Nawroth and the team employed. “I was surprised that with relatively few components—a silicone base and cells that we arranged—we were able to reproduce some pretty complex swimming and feeding behaviors that you see in biological jellyfish,” he said.
The team has discussed, once further research has been done, the possibility of giving the medusoid more control over direction, incorporating a simple “brain”, giving it the ability to, “respond to its environment and replicate more advanced behaviors like heading toward a light source and seeking energy or food.”
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