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Using rat cells, scientists create artificial jellyfish that swim

July 28, 2012|By Amina Khan
  • Caltech and Harvard researchers created an artificial jellyfish made from silicone polymer and rat heart cells that can "swim" in a container of ocean-like salt water.
Caltech and Harvard researchers created an artificial jellyfish made… (Caltech / AFP/Getty Images )

Are you ready for this jelly? Using rat heart cells and silicone, engineers at Caltech and Harvard have built a tiny, swimming, artificial jellyfish.

The centimeter-wide creation moves by using muscles in its soft body to pump water, just as its living peers do. And since real jellyfish, with their long tentacles, were once named after Medusa, the snake-haired monster of Greek myth, the scientists have dubbed their nonliving critter Medusoid.

Rather than try to mimic the jellyfish wholesale, the researchers decided to identify some of the factors  that make the jellyfish a successful swimmer — shape, stroke cycle, properly organized muscle fibers, elastic recoil — and built their jelly according to those principles.

First they designed a tissue-thin silicone membrane. This elastic, eight-armed film would be the jellyfish’s body. Then they printed a pattern of proteins onto the membrane, which served as scaffolding for the rat heart cells. The regular protein pattern allowed them to grow into organized "muscle," allowing the contracting heart cells to "beat" properly. 

When they stuck the Franken-jellies into fluid and ran a current through, the critters would reflexively contract and release, arms flapping as they swam. Here’s a video: 

Medusoid, described in a paper Sunday in the journal Nature Biotechnology, isn’t the first such jellyfish-related endeavor for some of these researchers. Back in 2010, study co-author and Caltech professor John Dabiri talked to The Times about various bioinspired solutions from the humble jellyfish, including heart pumps and bird-safe wind turbines. And, as I've written before, jellyfish aren’t the only living things inspiring engineering solutions.

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