“We took a rat apart and rebuilt it as a jellyfish”

Sometimes you read a science article and it sends a shiver tingle down your spine.  That was my reaction this afternoon reading Ed Yong’s piece on a paper just published in Nature Biotechnology by Janna Nawroth, Kevin Kit Parker and colleagues.

The gist of the work is that Parker’s team have created a hybrid biological machine that “swims” like a jellyfish by growing rat heart muscle cells on a patterned sheet of polydimethylsiloxane.  The researchers are using the technique to explore muscular pumps, but the result opens the door to new technologies built around biological-non biological hybrids.

To get a sense of what Parker et al. have achieved, it’s worth watching this video of the “medusoid” in action – the movement comes about by a single layer of heart muscles grown on the substrate contracting synchronously as an electric field is applied to the liquid.

For a more detailed account of the research, I would also recommend reading Ed Young’s excellent piece, and the original paper.

What particularly intrigues me here is the fusion between the biological and the non-biological.  While synthetic biology has typically focused on manipulating organisms through designer-DNA, this more practical approach to engineering biology could go a long way very fast – even before genetically engineered components are added.

In the case of the machine above, the result is a relatively functionless entity that moves when an external voltage is applied.  But it wouldn’t take much to engineer in a self-contained voltage source and pulse regulator, and maybe some control elements – fueled by further hybrid biological components.  What you end up with is an engineering construction kits for biological machines that could be as attractive to the DIY bio community as mainstream technologists.  With the addition of genetically designed components, this is likely to be a technology to watch.

Of course, the other reason why this story sent a shiver tingle down my spine is the quote that I used for the title of this piece – which must be one of the coolest biotech quotes ever!

Nawroth, J. C. et al. (2012) A tissue-engineered jellyfish with biomimetic propulsionNature Biotechol. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nbt.2269

(Does shiver denote dread?  Meant this was spine-tinglingly awesome!)

3 thoughts on ““We took a rat apart and rebuilt it as a jellyfish””

  1. A fascinating piece of research, and definitely an intriguing demonstration of our growing ability to re-engineer biology. Sadly, despite the fact this project was almost certainly funded by the U.S. government, I am not allowed to read the paper unless I fork over $32 to Nature, which is owned by a privately held German conglomerate. My spine shivers at the notion that American citizens must pay exorbitant fees to foreign corporations in order to read the results of research their tax dollars fund.

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