If you think that the idea of making cyborgs from living organisms sounds wrong, welcome to 2020. A team of scientists has created cyborg jellyfish that are capable of swimming three times faster than their non-modified counterparts.
Notably, jellyfish are some of the most efficient swimmers in the sea. However, they are quite slow. When the Stanford University team attached a motor to a living jellyfish, they amplified its energy efficiency by 100 times. Their research was recently published in the journal Science Advances.
To start their experiment, the researchers borrowed dinner-plate-sized moon jellies from San Pedro, California’s Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. They moved the invertebrates to a large tank filled with artificial saltwater.
From there, the team began developing the technology necessary to turn the jellyfish into cyborg swimmers. They first designed a waterproof controller powered by a lithium polymer battery. A microprocessor and a set of electrodes completed the setup. Researchers used toothpicks to implant the device into the muscle tissue of the jellyfish.
Each controller generates a series of electrical waveforms that act on the muscles of the jellyfish similarly to the way a pacemaker does on a human heart.
Although the whole experiment still seems a little unethical, the researchers defended their approach. They say that the moon jellies used in the experiment “are invertebrate animals with no central nervous system or reported nociceptors.” They go on to add, “However, we took steps to ensure that no unnecessary tissue damage occurred during experiments.”
After implanting the device into the jellyfish, the team carried out a series of tests to determine its effectiveness. They found that adding the controller without electrical stimulation didn’t affect how the jellyfish swam. However, a pulse frequency of 0.6 Hz (one pulse every 1.67 seconds) caused them to swim three times faster than normal. They started moving at a rate of 0.45 body diameters per second, up from their natural 0.15.
So, if jellyfish are physically capable of moving much faster than they normally do, why don’t they? The researchers say that there is simply no biological need for them to.
Ethics of the experiment aside, the results are impressive. Creating a biomechanical hybrid is no easy feat. The researchers were able to not only accomplish it but also do so successfully. For those worried about the fate of the jellies, there’s a happy ending to the story. The team removed the controllers and the invertebrates returned to their aquarium habitat. In fact, they actually healed on their own.
In the future, the researchers hope to continue experimenting with jellyfish cyborgs. They want to determine if it is possible to change the shape of a jellyfish’s bell to control its “steering” with electrical impulses.
Could similar principles be used one day to create true human cyborgs? Only time will be able to answer that question. Of course, that sort of breakthrough will likely be a long way off. Considering the state of today’s world without mechanically-altered humans, that’s probably for the best.