Researchers have developed a new type of synthetic creature: a Frankenstein-like mixture of cells from the heart of a rat with a robot inspired by a stingray. And this bug works, navigating by light.
Chis idea was born in the mind of bio-engineer Kit Parker, from the Wyss Institute of Harvard University, while visiting an aquarium with his daughter. By observing the behaviour of a small stingray, he thought it should be possible to build the muscular system of an organism using the cells of a heart. The creature would be guided by rays of light.
Immediately thought out, immediately implemented. The small cyborg ray weighs only ten grams and is the size of a coin. A scale model of the real animal. It is made from a gold skeleton, covered with a thin layer of stretchy polymer, whose shape is modelled on the natural model, with its propelling wings and directional tail.
The cyborg, on the left, with its natural model (Leucoraja erinacea) on the right
The body of this creature is covered with about 200,000 living heart cells of a rat, cardiomyocytes. These muscle cells have been genetically engineered to respond to light signals. Their activation activates the wings of the cyborg, which can then propel itself through the water. The impulse of the heart cells activates the wings downwards only. To move upwards and initiate the natural swimming movement, the researchers imagined using the energy of the first movement in the golden skeleton of their creature. This energy is released, pushing the movement of the wings upwards. And so on, to perfectly reproduce the swimming of a stingray.
In its natural state, the movement of a skate is particularly original. Indeed, the animal uses its own body to form waves, which generate movement. Scientists, in a very controlled approach of biomimicry, have endeavoured to reproduce this dynamic on an artificial object.
Even more amazing, the cyborg animal swims in water but can also navigate and avoid obstacles depending on the light impulses it is exposed to.
This experience was published in the journal Science and is welcomed by robotic scientists and researchers with great attention. Indeed, Kit Parker's work could enable them to advance in soft tissue activation in robots. Parker's team is also emphasizing the value of his work in improving our understanding of cardiomyocytes. Indeed, one could imagine using these cardiac muscles to activate synthetic pumps with applications in human medicine, with an artificial heart in the line of sight, as well as in robotics.
Is the creature created by Parker's team alive? In response to this question, the researcher answers : "I believe we are in the presence of a biological life form.... "He adds... "It's a machine but with a biological life form. I wouldn't say it's an organism because it can't reproduce, but it's certainly alive... ".